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There’s a lot of hate in the world. UCLA’s scholars are asking why and what can be done

The university's new Initiative to Study Hate kicks off with 23 diverse projects, including three where UCLA Fielding School of Public Health faculty will lead research efforts.

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Date: 
Wednesday, October 12, 2022
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UCLA is launching the Initiative to Study Hate, an ambitious social impact project that brings together a broad consortium of scholars to understand and ultimately mitigate hate in its multiple forms.

Supported by a $3 million gift from an anonymous donor, researchers will undertake 23 projects this year. The three-year pilot spans topics that examine the neurobiology of hate, the impact of social media hate speech on kids, the dehumanization of unhoused individuals, racial discrimination in health care settings and more.

UCLA Fielding School of Public Health faculty involved include Dr. Lillian Gelberg, professor of health policy and management, and Dr. Randall Kuhn, professor of community health sciences, who will address stigma directed at people experiencing homelessness; Dr. Ninez Ponce, the Fred W. and Pamela K. Wasserman professor and chair of the Department of Health Policy and Management, and Dr. Gilbert Gee, professor and chair of the Department of Community Health Sciences, who will address mental health effects of the 2021 Atlanta mass shooting; Dr. Paula Tavrow, professor of community health sciences, who will address hatred for abortion providers in the United States; while Dr. David Eisenman, professor of community health sciences, will serve as affiliated faculty with the initiative.

“Hate is so pervasive in our world that it almost seems too daunting to take up,” said David Myers, the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History, who serves as director of the initiative. “But we believe that this is exactly the kind of big question that a great public university like ours must seek answers to. This new initiative aims to understand how and why hate functions as it does.

“We’re interested in hate as it takes rise in groups and is transmitted from generation to generation, but we are also exploring how hate takes rise in the individual’s brain. Our ultimate aim is to do all that we can to mitigate or minimize hatred in individuals and groups.”

The initiative is the latest effort to support research and actions in an effort to build more just and humane societies, such as the Bedari Kindness Institute, the Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, Center for the Study of Women and ongoing social impact work from scholars in UCLA’s Institute of American Cultures, which for more than 50 years has led campus efforts to uplift marginalized communities.

Creation of the initiative comes at a particularly fraught time. Rising political and economic tensions and a global pandemic have led to increased expressions of hate. Meanwhile, longstanding structures of power often perpetuate bias, stigma and enmity.

“Hate directed at certain people and groups has unfortunately been a common theme throughout human history,” said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. “This interdisciplinary initiative will contribute much to our understanding of group hate — and more than that, will help us overcome it.”

The initiative’s research fellows hail from 20 disciplines across the UCLA campus. They include sociologists, psychologists, historians, education experts, cognitive scientists, public and community health experts, computer scientists, legal scholars and others. The initiative is housed in the UCLA Division of Social Sciences. Researchers in the first cohort will meet regularly in a monthly seminar to encourage sharing ideas across teams. Forthcoming years will fund new research projects.

Researchers and leaders of the initiative plan to regularly consult with local and state policymakers, anti-hate advocacy groups and non-governmental organizations. The initiative plans to present research findings in June. The findings could be applied to future college and K–12 curricula, public policy, health care interventions and more.

The initiative’s larger projects tackle some of society’s most vexing issues.

  • Led by Howard Padwa, a health services and qualitative researcher at UCLA’s Integrated Substance Abuse Programs, a team of public health scholars will seek to identify the beliefs, stereotypes and fears that undergird hatred directed at people who experience homelessness. 
  • Sociology professor Aaron Panofsky and Kushan Dasgupta from UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics will map the ways white nationalist groups selectively use and reject science to perpetuate themes of otherization and dehumanization online. 
  • The Social Media and the Spread of Hate, or SMASH, project is a collaborative effort between researchers in UCLA’s School of Education and Information Studies and the Organization for Social Media Safety, led by Tina Christie, Wasserman Dean of the School of Education and Information Studies, and Anne Gilliland, professor of information studies, in coordination with Christine Ong, a research scientist from UCLA’s Center for Research on Evaluations, Standards and Student Testing. SMASH plans to analyze data about students’ exposure to hate speech on social media from more than 40 schools across the country participating in Organization for Social Media Safety’s programming and conduct focus group discussions with students in four Los Angeles schools.

“Our approach will include gathering youth input,” Christie said. “We will also consider differences between social media platforms and different categories of hate speech. We hope to lay a firm foundation for future studies investigating how social media hate speech affects youths’ mental and physical health and learning trajectories.”

  • UCLA behavioral neurologist Dr. Mario Mendez and his team will examine how certain mechanisms in the brain create a sense of dehumanization toward others. They’ll study participants with healthy brains as well as those with brain disease.

“Hate, as we define it for our study, is an intense dislike that encourages the elimination of its target, involves dehumanization, or the denial of human qualities to others,” Mendez said. “We can learn much about hate through its relationship to dehumanization not only among neurotypical individuals, but also among persons with brain disorders. This is a little-studied area and we hope our findings will inspire further investigation into the cognitive mechanisms of hate.”

Many other research teams traverse topics of race, ethnicity and identity while others tackle topics related to media, data and politics.  

Even smaller projects have life-saving potential, Myers said.

Jocelyn Meza, UCLA assistant professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences, will lead an examination into implicit racial biases that exist in evidence-based suicide treatment — biases that disproportionately affect Black youth.  

“Suicide rates among Black youth have been rising since 1990s, but in that time we have not adequately challenged the racial disparities in suicide prevention and treatment modalities,” Meza said. “Black youth suicide must be centered and prioritized — otherwise, mental health disparities will continue to further expose Black children and adolescents to premature death.”

by Jessica Wolf