As summer turns to fall and the weather starts to cool, are American hearts getting colder as well?
That’s the sad conclusion of a recent study by Princeton professor of psychology and public affairs Susan Fiske, who used neuroimaging to study test subjects’ reaction to images. She found, as the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported, that when shown photos of the homeless and the poor, “their brains responded as though the images depicted things and not humans.”
In fact, after a summer during which the nation was forced to once again confront its complex relationship with race in the wake of the George Zimmerman trial and controversial court rulings on voting rights and police searches, it may be some surprise that Fiske found anti-poverty feelings to be “the most negative prejudice people report” — even beyond racism.
Fiske, who has studied America’s attitudes toward poverty for more than a decade, was sadly unsurprised by the results of the study. She told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Americans “react to the poor with disgust.” One formerly homeless woman, now a counselor to others who are homeless, agreed, telling the newspaper, “You’re looked at like you’re trash. It’s like they think you want nothing out of life. Like you’re not still a person.”
Fiske says most people do not vocalize their contempt for the poor. But this lack of empathy eclipses charitable instincts, due to the perception that the poor do not deserve to be helped since they are somehow lesser than their more successful — or lucky — peers.
Years of widespread economic hardship exacerbate the problem. Yale psychology professor John Dovidio says prejudices against the poor get worse during hard times, as the belief that “if you work hard, you get more, and if you have less, you deserve less” is amplified by harder times for many.
New York Times columnist Charles Blow, writing about Fiske’s study, says this coldness has seeped into politics as well. While America once invited “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” Blow says too many elected representatives are “insular, cruel and uncaring,” blaming welfare “for creating poverty rather than for mitigating the impact of it.”
Blow notes a June NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that found that Americans believe the top cause of continuing poverty is “too much welfare that prevents initiative” — an attitude mirrored in the House passage one month later of a farm bill that leaves out the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program entirely, at a time when nearly 50 million of us depend on it.
But there is hope, in the attitudes of individuals if not the masses. As we wrote last month, Americans are still concerned about homelessness, even if the ongoing nature of the crisis keeps it from leading the evening news. A sizable majority opposes SNAP cuts, and one in four Americans say they know at least one person who is or has been homeless. It is easy to disdain a faceless other, but harder to condemn a personal acquaintance.
Adam Bruckner of Philadelphia’s Helping Hand Rescue Mission would agree. He told the Inquirer that his “brain would have lit up with his personal prejudices” in Fiske’s test if he had taken it years ago. What changed his mind?”
“Once I met the mom, and the homeless person, it changed me,” he said. “I saw the humanity inside.”