Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Science of Hating Homeless People

Science roars. It delves into everything. The reach of science journeys back to the tiniest fraction of a second following the moment when the universe came into existence and it looks all around the interior space of our skulls to seek brain activity in sync with our thoughts.

Arrow points to the MPFC area
on the right side of a brain.
The MPFC exists on both sides.
An experiment, using American university-student volunteers, was conducted with the young people being shown pictures of various groups of people likely to be outliers to the folks they might normally know or admire.  They saw pictures of old people, rich people, minority-race persons and others. The results of the study was published in the journal “Zeitschrift für Psychologie” [Translated from German: “Journal of Psychology”] in 2011 in an article that, translated to English, was titled: “Dehumanized perception: A psychological means to facilitate atrocities, torture and genocide?” The journal article is the latest in a series, the output of the collaborative work of Dr. Lasana T. Harris, a professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University, and Dr. Susan T. Fiske, a professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton.

We are told a bit about the research in the recent book Mindwise by Nicholas Epley where it’s written, “[the study] participants rated … homeless people as more disgusting than any of the others. More tellingly, the volunteers also rated the homeless as being less mindful, less intelligent, less articulate and less emotional. The homeless were seen more as mindless objects than as fully mindful people.” [Note that the volunteers aren't "actively"/consciously "rating" the homeless, but doing so as a function of what their brain activity reveals.]

Mindless objects.” This sense of homeless folk is worse even than it seems. People attribute the functioning of a mind in objects all about them. If a thing acts in ways that seem irrational, then it can seem to have “a mind of its own.” Sixty percent of people who buy Roomba robotic vacuum cleaners give the little disc-shaped machine a name after observing it whisk about a room in patterns they perceive as unpredictable and thus human-like. A lot of people name their cleaner after Rosie, the robot maid in The Jetsons, or after their spouse. Other names include Dusty, Roswell and Linda Lovelace.

Mental activity is perceived to occur in Roombas and in "acceptable" humans but not so for homeless folk. From the webpage at the Emotion Researcher website, "The Negative Side of Disgust," Dr. Fiske is quoted from her 2013 book (with Shirley E. Taylor) Social cognition: From brains to culture: Mental state inferences occur spontaneously when viewing other people --for instance, "that guy is well dressed, so he must be meticulous." When seeing "disgusting" individuals, however, these inferences are not made. [i.e., Homeless folk are perceived to be mindless objects; others don't spontaneously infer mental activity when they spot a homeless person.]

While looking at the pictures used in the study (for just a couple seconds each, such to elicit a spontaneous, visceral reaction), the students were lying on their backs having select areas of their brains targeted by a Magnetic Resonance Imaging Scanner [MRI]. From the activity in brain regions, the spontaneous thoughts or absence of thoughts by the students could be 'read.'

In an earlier research project that Harris and Fiske conducted in 2006, only one area of students’ brains was targeted:  the medial prefrontal cortex [or MPFC] which Epley locates “about one inch above and behind the inside part of your eyebrows, on each side of your brain.” [See x-ray images, above.] The MPFC is active when we think about others’ minds.

In their research article, titled “Dehumanizing the Lowest of the Low,” that appeared in the journal Psychological Science, Drs. Harris and Fiske express the daunting extent of visceral disgust people have for homeless folk and addicts.

Words from the abstract for the paper makes the case most succinctly [emphases, mine]:
Traditionally, prejudice has been conceptualized as simple animosity. The Stereotype Content Model (SCM) [See graphic at right.] shows that some prejudice is worse. The SCM demonstrates dimensions of Warmth (high-to-low) and Competence (low-to-high). The SCM predicts that only extreme out-groups, groups that are both stereotypically hostile and stereotypically incompetent (low worth, low competence), such as addicts and the homeless will be dehumanized.
A connection with "atrocities against humanity" are reported in a second study within the "Dehumanized Perception" journal article. Quoting the abstract for the article, "... human-perception dimension ratings correlate with activation in brain regions beyond the social-cognition network, including areas implicated in disgust, attention, and cognitive control. These results suggest that disengaging social cognition affects a number of other brain processes and hints at some of the complex psychological mechanisms potentially involved in atrocities against humanity."

Atrocious actions by teenagers throwing stones at homeless people or, as happened recently, putting a homeless man in a dumpster and setting the trash therein aflame to watch the man burn may be understood as failure by these teens to recognize homeless people as real thinking, feeling beings.

To my homeless mind (and, yes, it operates; trust me on this) the evidence to designate abuse of homeless people to be a Hate Crime, in many instances, is overwhelming. Yet, while there was a big push for such a designation in many states in 2014, thanks in large part to articles in Time Magazine and Huffington Post, the Hate Crime designation has been elusive for crimes against homeless folk in California. Currently, only Florida, Maine, Maryland and D.C. have laws on the books designating violence against people who are homeless as a possible hate crime. The primary problem seems to be that being homeless is not a function of  "prejudice based upon race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity" which is currently the prerequisite for a Hate Crime designation in most states.

In a 2008 article in Time magazine, "Violence Against the Homeless: Is it a Hate Crime?" daunting statistics are given about the deaths of homeless people as a result of violence:
The attacks on homeless street people are particularly vicious. "They are the most vulnerable people in the country," says Tony Taylor, a research associate at the National Coalition for the Homeless. "Over 1 in 4 attacks that are reported against the homeless end in murder. That's huge compared to one-tenth of a percent of other protected classes," he said, referring to categories of individuals currently protected under federal hate-crime legislation. These crimes typically include bias-motivated violence and intimidation against individuals based on their sexual orientation, race or religion. Being homeless and on the street is not one of the existing categories. In 2006, the last year that FBI figures were available for hate-crime fatalities, three individuals in the protected classes were killed vs. 20 homeless individuals.
In a 2009 study by the National Coalition for the Homeless, titled "Hate, Violence and Death on Main Street, USA 2008," data was amassed that extends the earlier Time magazine figures. Quoting from the NCH Report:
Over the past ten years, hundreds of homeless people have been attacked and killed. While this report provides alarming numbers, the fact remains that countless attacks go undocumented each year. Homeless individuals are treated so poorly by society that their attacks are often forgotten or unreported. Knowing some cases are missing, the attacks that are accounted for over the past ten years are still shocking: 
• 880 acts of violence have been committed against homeless individuals
• The attacks have happened in 46 states, Puerto Rico and Washington, DC
• 244 homeless individuals lost their lives in the brutal attacks 
The victims of these attacks have faced injustices greater than the scars and pain they endure; they have had to cope with humiliation, tattered self-esteem, and battered respect for themselves as humans. 
In 2008, violent acts against the homeless leave much room for improvement: 
• 106 homeless persons were victims of violent attacks
• 27 of those 106 persons were killed as a result of those attacks 
The perpetrators of these attacks have shown an overwhelming trend to be young men and teen-aged boys. Over the past ten years, the majority of attacks against the homeless have been committed by teenage boys and youth as young as ten years old. In 2008: 
• 43% of attacks against homeless people were committed by teens aged 13-19
• 73% of the accused/convicted attackers were ages 25 and younger 
Some of the accused/convicted have been quoted as saying: “It was just a vagrant”, “it was fun”, or they did it "because they could."
As for Federal law, according to an NCH report from 2014, " The FBI does not currently recognize a protected status for people experiencing homelessness."

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