Dehumanisation and diversity with Professor Lasana Harris

Lasana Harris, Associate Professor of Experimental Psychology at UCL, shares his thoughts about his identity as a person of colour in STEM and his career as a scientist in dehumanised perception.

Writer: Chrysi Anastasaki
Editor: Ellie Jackson
Artist: Rosie Jarret

Lasana Harris is an Associate Professor of Experimental Psychology at UCL and leader of the social neuroscience research lab. He also plays a key role in diversity and inclusion as the Race Equity lead for the faculty. Prior to his 5 years at UCL, Professor Harris was an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He describes his drive as a scientist as “the pursuit to answer hard, meaningful questions that could alter the course of humanity and enhance people’s daily experiences”. A self-professed nerd, he explains that “the questions are unanswered, so I am still motivated”. 

Professor Harris’ life in research

Professor Harris’ work focuses on dehumanisation, a phenomenon where a person or group of people are seen by others as less human. Some of Professor Harris’ research has found that the amygdala, a region of the brain linked to the experience of disgust, is activated when people observe dehumanised social groups, such as the homeless. This kind of research is pivotal in understanding behavioural prejudices and crimes committed against fellow humans, including genocide, war, slavery and denial of human rights. Professor Harris also has research interests in anthropomorphism (attributing human characteristics to animals or objects) and the social learning of emotion. 

During his time as a researcher, Professor Harris’ proudest achievement is his groundbreaking work on the empirical study of dehumanisation, which helped inspire a research movement within social psychology. He describes this research as demonstrating the “validity of social neuroscience and neuroeconomic approaches to understanding human behaviour”. Twenty years later, these approaches are now “thriving, valid, scientific exploits”.

Despite a successful career, Harris’ work is not free from challenges. For example, securing funding is difficult as current experts in the field do not have his interdisciplinary training, therefore cannot appraise such work. In addition, studying immoral behaviour is difficult because his team is restricted by a code of ethics. As a result, their paradigms have yet to be tested in real-world situations, despite their best approximations.

The global events of the past year have also affected his research. The global wave of Black Lives Matter protests forced him to focus on social bias more than he would like, while the pandemic has pivoted his research towards disgust. “I am much busier than before, but we can’t collect physiological or brain data. Experiments have been delayed by at least a year.”

STEM and diversity

As a person of colour and an immigrant to the countries in which he has worked and studied, Professor Harris has had a unique experience in the world of STEM. When asked what this means to him, he responded “I am often the only person that looks like me. I think that provides an example for younger researchers. I’m also the only person like me who comes from poverty in a third-world country. That means more than my skin colour.” Regarding how his identity influences his work, he commented that his non-traditional background not only guides what he finds interesting but it gives him a competitive advantage.

Being different in STEM presents challenges. “You deal with racism every day. Every negative decision you get, which in academia are numerous, makes you wonder whether there is racism behind it.” Importantly, he vows to not let rejection hold him back.

When asked how he would encourage greater diversity in STEM, Professor Harris explained that promoting the knowledge of possibilities would be a great help. Anecdotally, he remembered that he initially did not want to go to Princeton for his PhD. “My undergraduate supervisor at Howard University scolded me and said if I could go to Princeton, I would study anything they wanted me too. I took her advice. I think being open to advice and listening to others is a trait I truly am grateful for having.” Professor Harris also has a range of role models, from his mother, who as a single parent raised two boys, to Naipaul, Fraz Fanon and Bob Marley.

Finally, he offered this advice for people who are struggling to come to terms with their identity and aspire to do what he does. “I tell people to claim all aspects of themselves. People are not one thing. We are all man things. Embrace all of yourself. Be stubborn. Have a thick skin. Be a little blind to reality, and be determined.”

We would like to kindly thank Professor Lasana Harris for taking the time to participate in our special issue on diversity and share his unique ideas as part of this interview.

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