The Big Questions

Life, death and free will.

Person or Object? The Case of Homelessness

How the Brain Perceives Homeless People

An ad agency in New York has recently planned to pay homeless people $20 a day to act as travelling Wi-Fi Internet hot spots. The homeless people would wear t-shirts as part of the position, stating that they are a Wi-Fi hotspot. This pretty directly insinuates that these people were, to an extent at least, being dehumanized. 

This would not surprise researchers Lasana Harris (now at Duke University) and Susan Fiske (at Princeton University) who tested how people perceive members of other groups at a basic neural level.

Basically, this area of the brain called the Medial Prefrontal Cortex (mPFC) activates when people do things that involve perceiving and relating to other people, such as recognizing and distinguishing between faces and empathizing. These researchers hypothesized, however, that like objects such as tables, images of certain groups of people—the homeless—would fail to activate the mPFC.

This is exactly what they found. Images of all other groups besides the homeless activated the mPFC. This suggests that the homeless are not recognized as human relative to other groups. They actually are perceived, at least in this area of the brain, more like objects, such as tables.

So why is this? Fiske and colleagues work indicates that as much as 95% of people's overall attitudes toward someone are determined by how competent (intelligent, capable) and warm (kind, friendly) they are perceived to be (some researchers also include morality traits, such as genuine and trustworthy as part of warmth). Competence is related to respect, and warmth to liking. Basically, homeless people are perceived as low in both warmth and competence. In turn, because these two dimensions are so crucial to what makes us human, homeless people are dehumanized at a basic neural level.

The result is that homeless people are generally dehumanized, and even, in the case of these Wi-Fi hot spots, equated to an object and used as an object.

 

Nathan Heflick completed his Ph.D. in social psychology at The University of South Florida.

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