Disposable Humans

Societal implications of a throwaway culture
Today’s hyper-consuming culture has an impact on more than the environment. Although the one-use products consumed in this culture may enhance daily lives, many members of society view fellow human beings with the same disposable attitude.

By Amanda Proscia

The product-related #FirstWorldProblems tweets reflect a society that expects items and technology to swiftly solve trivial problems. Although the products’ convenience usually fixes every day issues, it generates a throwaway culture. The emphasis on disposability may trigger a similar lack of appreciation toward other humans.

In a 1948 essay “Why Work?” Dorothy Sayers warns that a society founded on trash and waste is as unsustainable as “a house built on sand.”

In the twenty-first century, it appears as though the unsustainable house is built on plastic instead of sand. In 2012 alone, Americans generated 32 million tons of plastic waste, about 13 times as much as in 1960.


Discarding the homeless

Seventy-five percent of solid waste is recyclable, but only 30 percent is actually recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. People are now viewing some factions of society with similar careless attitudes, according to a Princeton University study.

The study’s authors used MRI scans to examine the brain’s reaction when shown pictures of different sects of society. The researchers found the majority of the undergraduate student participants’ brains did not recognize homeless people as fellow human beings.

However, other factions of society, such as the elderly and people with disabilities, activated the participants’ Medial Prefrontal Cortex (mPFC), the area of the brain used while identifying members of the same species. When researchers showed the participants pictures of homeless people, their brains reacted the same way as when shown images of vomit.

“Our research shows that homeless people are seen as the lowest of the low and utterly incompetent, as well as untrustworthy, and people feel disgust toward such groups in society,” says Susan Fiske, lead researcher on the study.

These feelings of contempt and disgust are reflected in a Yahoo! Answers post asking “How do you view homeless people and why?”

Sixteen users’ answers ranged from “bad luck” to laziness to drug habits, according to Yahoo! community posters. One answer, however, was more revealing: “With binoculars, so I don’t have to get close to them.”

“It is a brain manifestation of what happens when you seen a panhandler on a sidewalk,” says Fiske in a Gordon W. Allport Fellow of the American Academy acceptance speech. “People react to some people as if they are piles of garbage. And that is pretty bad.”

Helping hands, happy hearts

Although spending on non-necessities has never been higher, the amount of Americans that reported being “very happy” peaked in the 1970s. This data suggests that products and technology cannot generally fulfill one’s life.

Helping others triggers a release of dopamine, the pleasure molecule, in the brain, according to research. This information coupled with the decline in happiness indicates that the self-absorbed throwaway society of today is lacking general kindness and compassion toward other human beings.

Fiske says a reversal of the inclination to see those less-fortunate as revolting is possible. “The viewing of some out-groups as basically vermin is a sort of default response, but it can be undone, depending on the way that you relate to them.”

Something as simple as a smile toward a homeless person induces empathy by triggering the mPFC. “If people simply make themselves think hard about what’s going on for a particular homeless person” it has the ability to change their brain’s reaction to one of compassion, Fiske says.

The study results should “create an opportunity for people to think about their own reactions” and to make people mindful of their own prejudice or how their behaviors affect not just their everyday life but society as a whole, Fiske says.

#FirstWorldProblemers’ product-related tweets signify an egotistical society, reliant on instant gratification. Although, the somewhat-purposely ironic tweets highlight trivialities, they may contain the self-awareness Fiske says is needed to influence society for the better.

Fiske adds, “Status truly does divide us from each other and the more conscious we are of that, the more we can impact it.”



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