When we pass someone on the street she knows exactly what we think of her. How? Malcolm Gladwell explains that when we see someone, a micro-expression crosses our face, lasting a few hundredths of a second and revealing our inner feelings. They’re short enough that if you blink, you’ll miss them. Then our rational mind takes over and the micro-expression changes, reflecting the face that we condition ourselves to show the world. So when we see a person on the street who “looks homeless,” our micro-expression might show fear, anxiety, or disgust, even if we see ourselves as open and giving people. The other person senses this subconscious reaction and often reacts accordingly.
What’s the mechanism in our brain that leads to these micro-expressions? The human mind is uniquely suited to reduce that which it does not recognize as similar to itself to the status of an object. Different parts of our brain are activated when we see other people than when we see a chair or a table. One study showed that when shown pictures of homeless people or drug addicts (the ones whose appearance show the wear and tear of these conditions, anyway), our brains see them as so unlike us that they classify them as objects and not human beings. Is this true for everyone who doesn’t have experience living on the streets or being addicted to drugs? Hopefully not. Probably not. A lot of anti-poverty work is based on the idea that people living on the streets are human beings and not objects, that they have the same human rights and should be treated with the same respect as everyone else, micro-expressions aside.
What’s the solution if we want people living in poverty to be treated with dignity, as human beings capable of contributing to society, with compassion, and as friends, instead of as “objects”? Gladwell suggests that we can all train our subconscious reactions toward others by spending more time with people who are different from us. So talking with the panhandler sitting on the curb is a good first step. On the societal level we need policies that encourage people living in poverty and people from other backgrounds to live, go to school, and work together. Until we make that first personal or societal step, our brains will always objectify people living on the streets and our micro-expressions will always betray us. Only if we make that first step, can we start to blink away poverty.