In my own lab, for example, we dug up dozens of images of societal groups that were identifiable in an instant: people with disabilities, older people, homeless people, drug addicts, rich businessmen, and American Olympic athletes. We asked research participants to tell us what emotions these images evoked in them; as we predicted, they reported feeling pity (toward the disabled and elderly), disgust (the homeless and drug addicts), envy (businessmen), and pride (athletes).
We then slid other participants into a functional MRI scanner to observe their brain activity as they looked at these evocative photos. Within a moment of seeing the photograph of an apparently homeless man, for instance, people’s brains set off a sequence of reactions characteristic of disgust and avoidance. The activated areas included the insula, which is reliably associated with feelings of disgust toward objects such as garbage and human waste. Notably, the homeless people’s photographs failed to stimulate areas of the brain that usually activate whenever people think about other people, or themselves. Toward the homeless (and drug addicts), these areas simply failed to light up, as if people had stumbled on a pile of trash.
We were surprised—not by the clear sign of disgust, but by how easy it was to achieve. These were photographs, after all, not smelly, noisy, intrusive people. Yet we saw how readily physical characteristics could evoke strong, immediate, and deep-seated emotional reactions.
The good news is that researchers have found that two factors can reduce this reaction, context and exposure. This affirms our anecdotal experience that public education that involves direct contact between addicts and the public can be powerful in reducing stigma.