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Annenberg professor Emily Falk faced backlash for a research survey question asking participants to give evolutionary ratings of demographic groups.

Credit: Kylie Cooper

A Penn professor in the Annenberg School of Communication is facing backlash after her research team administered a survey asking participants to rate how “evolved” they perceived average members of various demographic groups to be.

On June 3, 2020 College graduate Sam Kesler posted a screenshot of the survey to Twitter, calling the survey question “extremely troubling.” The tweet currently has 260 retweets and over 600 likes.

Less than 24 hours after Kesler, who is a former editor of 34th Street, posted the screenshot, students who received the survey question received an apology from Communication Neuroscience Laboratory Director and Communication, Psychology, and Marketing professor Emily Falk on behalf of herself and her team. 

The online Annenberg survey included the 'March of Progress' image originally published in 1965 — also known as the 'Ascent of Man' — which depicts an evolutionary transformation of an ancestral ape into a human through five separate icons. 

Participants were asked to use this image as a guide and, using sliders, indicate how evolved they considered various demographic groups to be. The groups included people experiencing homelessness, undocumented migrants, children, Chinese people, the elderly, Italian people, College students, people with COVID-19, and people with weakened immune systems.

In Falk's apology email to students, she described this five-icon image as the "Ascent of (Hu)Man Scale," which "measures attitudes of blatant dehumanization by asking people to rate how 'evolved' they think different groups of people are; a deeply problematic premise." 

Beneath the image, the survey read, “There are no right or wrong answers here: we are simply interested in your opinion."

“This language was designed to elicit truthful responses from participants, but we realize that it communicated that we believe there are no right or wrong answers, when in fact we strongly believe that there is only one correct answer – that all people are fully human,” Falk wrote in her apology email.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, "racist and dehumanizing attitudes" have increased, Falk wrote in an emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian. The study, she said, was designed to document these harmful attitudes in order to help design interventions that can reduce or prevent them. 

Falk wrote the scale was removed to "eliminate the possibility of causing further pain to study participants," and to avoid lending credibility to the scale's premise that people vary in their humanity depending on demographics.

"We also realize that a scale like this, backed by a University’s name, could imply that rating other humans in such a manner has some scientific authority, which we absolutely do not want to promote," Falk wrote.

Falk wrote she and her research team will follow up with all study participants.