According to the stereotype content model, the stereotypes we have of different groups span along two dimensions: competence and warmth, resulting in four different types of stereotypes: admiration stereotypes, paternalistic stereotypes, envious stereotypes, and contemptuous stereotypes (Fiske 2002). Admiration stereotypes appear when social groups are perceived as competent and warm. Paternalistic stereotypes are when members of outgroups perceive a social group as warm but not competent. Envious stereotypes are when social groups are deemed competent but not warm. Contemptuous stereotypes are when outgroups regard a social group as incompetent and not warm.
Homeless people are often stereotyped as incompetent and not warm. Like other social groups that are stereotyped contemptuously, they elicit strong negative emotions like disgust and resentment from the outgroup, which in this case is people who are not homeless ( Durante 2009). Stereotypes of homeless people might be one of the reasons why despite the majority of Americans being in favor of building more affordable housing (Data for progress 2021), efforts to do so are met with backlash. One common reason for the backlash is, while people know that affordable housing is beneficial, they do not want it in their backyard.
Behaviors like protesting the building of affordable housing is not the only thing that showcases our disgust of homeless people; brain imaging does too. In a study by Harris (2006), using an fMRI, they image the brains of 10 participants while viewing 48 photographs. Of the 48 photographs, they showed eight social groups (including homeless people), with each social group belonging to one of the four stereotype groups.
While analyzing the brain imaging of the participants, they paid particular attention to the medial prefrontal cortex. In previous studies, researchers found the medial prefrontal cortex necessary for social cognition abilities like self-reflection, person perception, and mentalizing (Grossmann 2013) and activated whenever people think of a person (whether themselves or another person). For social groups that elicit a feeling of pride (admiration stereotypes), envy (envious stereotypes), and pity (paternalistic stereotypes), there was activity in the medial prefrontal cortex. But in social groups that elicited disgust ( contemptuous stereotypes), there was no activity in the medial prefrontal cortex. Additionally, when viewing social groups stereotyped contemptuously, participants had more activity in their amygdala and insula (both are brain regions implicated in negative emotions like disgust). This study suggests beside being disgusted by social groups stereotyped contemptuously, like homeless people, we do not even perceive them as people.
The dehumanization of homeless people observed in the study by Harris (2006) translates into real-life consequences. In 2021, Warren Barnes, a homeless man affectionately called ‘The reading man’ by his peers, was murdered and beheaded by a man believing he could get away with it because ‘he did not think people would notice if Barnes went missing’(Lofholm 2021). The murder of Barnes highlights the issue of violence against the homeless. In a peer-reviewed article by Meinbresse (2014), they questioned homeless people living in 5 cities across the united states (Detroit, Fort Lauderdale, Nashville, Houston, and Worcester) about their experience with violence. They found that 49 % of participants were victims of violent attacks. They also found that older participants (43 or older) and participants who experienced chronic homelessness (homeless for two years or more) were more likely to experience a violent attack.
While it is clear that we dehumanize homeless people, and that leads to violence against homeless people, it is harder to answer the questions: Where do the stereotypes of homeless people come from? How do we justify the dehumanization of homeless people? I think stereotypes of homeless people are the cause and justification of the negative feelings towards people without homes. In other words, people are disgusted by homeless people because they regard them as incompetent and cold, and people justify their disgust of homeless people through contemptuous stereotypes.
How can we break the cycle of dehumanization of homeless people? In a study by Batson (1997), they explore using empathy as a source of attitude change. In this study, they were specifically interested in whether empathy could improve attitude towards homeless people regardless if the researchers portray homeless people as responsible for their homelessness. They divided 46 participants into four groups: low empathy and high victim responsibility, low empathy and low victim responsibility, high empathy and high victim responsibility, and high empathy and low victim responsibility.
Each group watched a video of Harold Mitchell (a fictitious character) explaining his experience as a homeless man. In the two high empathy groups, the experimenter instructed the participant to imagine how Harold felt about the events that occurred in his life. In the two low empathy groups, the experimenter told the participant to be objective and not get caught up with Harold’s emotions. After watching the video, the experimenters gave each group background information on Harold. In the two low victim responsibility groups, the background information stated that Harold’s homelessness and inability to gain employment were due to health issues. In the two high victim responsibility groups, the background information stated that Harold’s homelessness and inability to gain employment were due to Harold being lazy and not wanting to work. Afterward, the participants were given a survey measuring their empathy for Harlod and another survey measuring their attitudes towards homeless people.
The most convincing evidence that empathy can improve attitude towards homeless people is that participants in the high empathy and high victim responsibility group had a more positive attitude towards homeless people than participants in the low empathy and low victim responsibility group. Meaning despite Harold’s homelessness being portrayed as his fault (high victim responsibility), participants instructed to imagine how Harold is feeling (high empathy) reported a more positive attitude toward homeless people than the participant in the low empathy and low victim responsibility group.
Increasing empathy towards homeless people potentially provides us a way to combat the negative attitudes and stereotypes of homeless people and decrease the violence they experience. One way we can increase empathy is through media, either through TV shows and movies or news coverage. In 2018, 0.002 percent of news reported on homelessness and other housing instability issues (Center For Media & Social Impact). When the news does report on homelessness, it is often in a way that is unsympathetic and blames the homeless person for their homeless (Center For Media & Social Impact). Also, in other media, such as TV shows and movies, the majority of homeless characters have less than ten speaking lines (even in TV shows where homelessness is a topic they discuss) (Center For Media & Social Impact).
One way to increase empathy towards homeless people is to increase the amount of good representation homeless people get in the media. Good representation means having homeless characters with nuanced stories actually have speaking roles and the news reporting on the stories of people experiencing homelessness, not just abstract mention of homelessness (i.e homeless increases or decreases this much in this area, etc).
I also think that the everyday person can work to combat negative feelings and stereotypes of homeless people by the words they use. For example, while editing this blog, I continuously had to change where I wrote ‘the homeless’ with homeless people or people without homes. Additionally, before editing my blog post, the section about the murder of Warren Barnes was focused on his murderer, and I had referred to Barnes as ‘A homeless man’ rather than by his name. That is to say, the way we communicate is significant, and we often, without thinking, dehumanize certain social groups (ex. referring to black people as the blacks, queer people as the gays, and homeless people as the homeless). Part of generating empathy for homeless people as a way to combat the violence they face is changing the way we talk about them.
Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A. J. C., Glick, P., & Xu, J. (2002). A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: Competence and warmth respectively follow from perceived status and competition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82(6), 878–902. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1688
Durante, F., Volpato, C., & Fiske, S. T. (2009). Using the stereotype content model to examine group depictions in fascism: An archival approach. European Journal of Social Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.637
Data For Progress. (2021, June 30). Memo: Voters want a public option for broadband, Child Care and Housing. Data For Progress. Retrieved March 27, 2022, from https://www.dataforprogress.org/memos/public-option-for-broadband-child-care-housing
Harris, L. T., & Fiske, S. T. (2006). Dehumanizing the lowest of the low. Psychological Science, 17(10), 847–853. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01793.x
Grossmann, T. (2013). The role of medial prefrontal cortex in early social cognition. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00340
Lofholm, N. (2021, May 10). “The reading man” of Grand Junction was killed by a stranger. His friends in downtown aren’t done telling his story. The Colorado Sun. Retrieved March 27, 2022, from https://coloradosun.com/2021/05/04/reading-man-grand-junction-murder/
Meinbresse, M., Brinkley-Rubinstein, L., Grassette, A., Benson, J., Hall, C., Hamilton, R., Malott, M., & Jenkins, D. (2014). Exploring the experiences of violence among individuals who are homeless using a consumer-led approach. Violence and Victims, 29(1), 122–136. https://doi.org/10.1891/0886-6708.vv-d-12-00069
Batson, C. D., Polycarpou, M. P., Harmon-Jones, E., Imhoff, H. J., Mitchener, E. C., Bednar, L. L., Klein, T. R., & Highberger, L. (1997). Empathy and attitudes: Can feeling for a member of a stigmatized group improve feelings toward the group? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72(1), 105–118. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.124
Homelessness & Housing Security in U.S. culture: How popular culture & news depicts an American Challenge – CMSI. Center for Media and Social Impact. (2019, September 10). Retrieved March 27, 2022, from https://cmsimpact.org/report/homelessness-housing-security-u-s-culture-popular-culture-news-depicts-american-challenge/