Thursday, July 27, 2017

Inequality, Poverty, and Social Dysfunction

Keith Payne is a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina whose specialty is the psychology of inequality and discrimination.  He has produced an interesting and enlightening book titled The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die.

It is well-known that within groups of members of a species there is a strong tendency to form a hierarchy.  This is seen in animal species where the hierarchy is clearly established and firm rules are enforced.  Position on this hierarchical ladder has important consequences.  The higher the position of a female the more likely she will get to mate with a powerful male.  Conversely, a male low on the ladder may have little or no opportunity to mate with any female.  Access to food might also be determined by position within this hierarchical ladder.  Consequently, animals will be adept at weighing their positions relative to those of others, and will be continually concerning themselves with issues of fairness in order to make sure they are treated appropriately.

Humans are animals evolved from species that do form hierarchical ladders, and it is likely that early human groups spent much of their time with the same status worries as our ape ancestors.  While humans have evolved their own unique properties over time, the tendency for human groups to form a hierarchy is still present.  All human assemblies tend to arrive at a leader or a leadership group and a bunch of followers.  While precise hierarchical levels tend to exist mainly in military organizations, all members of the assembly will be conscious of their status and concerned that they are treated fairly given their status.

Payne uses the symbol of a ladder on which people project their assumed positions to illustrate inequality and its consequences in human organizations.  He further concludes from psychological studies and from anthropological arguments that humans are wired to continuously monitor their environment for signs of status loss or status gain.  This activity is innate and usually takes place subconsciously.

“….no one ever mentions something that we know to be true, both from scientific studies and from simply being human: ‘I crave status’.”

“Others might not acknowledge that, but we can certainly see it in their behavior.  We can observe it in the clothes they buy, in the houses they choose to live in, and the gifts they give.  Above all we can perceive it in the constantly shifting standards for what counts as ‘enough.’  If you have ever received a raise, only to adapt to the new level of income in a few months and again begin to feel as though you were still living paycheck to paycheck as before, then you can experience it yourself.  As your accomplishments rise, so do your comparison standards.  Unlike the rigid column of numbers that make up a bank ledger, status is always a moving target, because it is defined by ongoing comparisons to others.”

When asked to assess their status by placing themselves on the rungs of a ladder, it becomes clear that people view their status in ways that are only slightly related to the presumed status markers of income, education and type of job.  Rather, presumed status seems to depend on how we compare ourselves to those we choose as peers.

“It is true that, on average, people with higher incomes, more education, and more prestigious jobs do rate themselves higher on the ladder.  But the effect is relatively small.  In a sample of, say, a thousand people, some will rate themselves at the top, others will rate themselves at the bottom, and many will be in between.  But only about 20 percent of their self-evaluation is based on income, education, and job status.”

“This surprisingly small relationship between traditional markers of status and how it is perceived subjectively means that there are a lot of people who are by objective standards affluent and yet rate themselves on the lower rungs.  Similarly, many people who are objectively poor rate themselves high up the ladder.”

Poor persons can feel comfortable with their status if their peers, to whom they compare themselves, are in similar situations.  On the other hand, a mere millionaire who lives in a world of multimillionaires can experience the stress normally associated with poverty.  That is an important concept to grasp.

“….inequality is not the same thing as poverty, although it can feel an awful lot like it….Inequality makes people feel poor and act poor, even when they’re not.  Inequality so mimics poverty in our minds that the United States of America, the richest and most unequal of countries, has a lot of features that better resemble a developing nation than a superpower.”

The health and longevity problems that are associated with poverty have been well documented.  What Payne is saying is that the same problems arise for people who are not objectively poor, but who merely feel poor because they suffer a status deficit.

“We have to take subjective perceptions of status seriously, because they reveal so much about people’s fates.  If you place yourself on a lower rung, then you are more likely in the coming years to suffer from depression, anxiety, and chronic pain.  The lower the rung you select, the more probable it is that you will make bad decisions and underperform at work.  The lower the rung you select, the more likely you are to believe in the supernatural and in conspiracy theories.  The lower the rung you select, the more prone you are to weight issues, diabetes, and heart problems.  The lower the rung you select, the fewer years you have left to live.”

“Let me be clear that I am not simply asserting that, if you are poor, then all of these things are more likely to happen to you.  I am stating, rather, that these things are more likely to happen to you if you feel poor, regardless of your actual income.”

That is a rather startling claim.  Most of Payne’s book is concerned with demonstrating that it is accurate.  We will cover only some of the data he uses to make his point.

In order to convince us that we are status conscious animals who respond to status threatening situations, Payne reminds us of what flying on commercial airliners is like.

“Airplanes are microcosms of our world and the everyday anxieties we encounter there.  We are thrown together with hundreds of strangers, forced into a level of intimacy ordinarily reserved for loved ones or professional colleagues.  We are crammed into a narrow metal tube, triggering our evolved fear of enclosed spaces.”

“But even more than the anxieties they provoke, there is another aspect of airplanes that makes them a notable microcosm of life.  Airplanes are the physical embodiment of a status hierarchy.  They are a social ladder made of aluminum and upholstery in which the rungs are represented by rows, by boarding groups, and by seating classes.”

The most glaring hierarchical aspect of flying is the presence of a first class section with big comfortable seats, free alcohol, and perhaps even warm food.  To emphasize the status differences, coach passengers must wait for first class to board and get comfortable.  They then must pass through the first-class section on the way to their cramped and crowded coach seats, taking in the obvious differences in accommodations.  A pair of psychologists, Katherine DeCelles and Michael Norton, analyzed data from millions of flights to see what factors might have played a role in triggering incidents of air rage where a passenger becomes unruly.

“As they discovered, the odds of an air rage incident were almost four times higher in the coach section of a plane with a first-class cabin than in a plane that did not have one.  Other factors mattered too, like flight delays.  But the presence of a first-class section raised the chances of a disturbance by the same amount as a nine-and-a-half-hour delay.”

“But about fifteen percent of flights board in the middle or at the back of the plane, which spares the coach passengers this gauntlet.  As predicted, air rage was about twice as likely on flights that boarded at the front….”

Perhaps it would be interesting to monitor your emotions the next time you trudge to your coach row through a first-class section where they may already be enjoying the first of their complimentary cocktails.  And if you are fortunate to be sitting in a first-class seat when the coach rabble pass through, how do you respond?  Do you make eye contact?  Do you smile?  Or do you look away content in the sensation that you have more important things to be concerned with than these people.

Among other effects of poverty is a state of elevated stress.  Excessive time spent in a state of stress is not something the human body was designed to withstand.  It can lead to deleterious health outcomes.  If Payne is correct, then people organized into well-defined status groups should show different levels of health outcomes.  It is well-known that poverty plays a role and mortality rates are higher among the poor.  Payne found an example of a well-defined status hierarchy where income differences persisted but where poverty was eliminated as an issue.

“We can see this pattern even more clearly in data from a massive study of more than ten thousand British Civil Service employees that has been in progress since the 1960s.  Her Majesty’s Civil Service has an exquisitely detailed hierarchy with dozens of clearly defined job grades from cabinet secretaries who report directly to the prime minister all the way down to entry-level clerical jobs.  Physician Michael Marmot has found that each rung down the ladder is associated with a shorter life span.”



“The pattern is strikingly linear, so that even the difference between the highest-status government officials and those just one rung below was linked to increased mortality.”

“….the subjects in this study all have decent government jobs and the salaries, health insurance, pensions, and other benefits that are associated with them.  If you thought that elevated mortality rates were only a function of the desperately poor being unable to meet their basic needs, this study would disprove that….”


Payne has claimed that subjective social comparisons can lead to risky behavior, a tendency to make bad decisions, and a shorter life span.  To elaborate on this point he discusses the recent findings of Ann Case and Angus Deaton who noticed that the mortality rate for some classes of whites has been increasing, in contrast to what is observed in minority populations in this country and for all citizens in other wealthy nations.

“Since the 1990s, the death rate for middle-aged white Americans has been rising.  The increase is concentrated among men and whites without a college degree.  The death rate for black Americans of the same age remains higher, but is trending slowly downward, like that of all other minority groups.”

“The wounds in this group seem to be largely self-inflicted….They are dying of cirrhosis of the liver, suicide, and a cycle of chronic pain and overdoses of opiates and painkillers.”

Payne asserts that the results can be explained by a combination of these risky behaviors and the stress associated with living in a state of “feeling poor.”

“The trend itself is striking because it speaks to the power of subjective social comparisons.  This demographic group is dying of violated expectations.  Although high school-educated whites make more money on average than similarly educated blacks, the whites expect more because of their history of privilege.  Widening income inequality and stagnant social mobility, Case and Deaton suggest, mean that this generation is likely to be the first in American history that is not more affluent than its parents.”

Humans spent most of their time on earth living in small groups struggling to exist.  There would be hierarchy in this society, but with little wealth the span of inequality would be small.  That could also mean that humans would have become sensitized to minor slights in their presumed status.  With the historical era in which agriculture allowed greater accumulations of wealth, inequality would have grown.  In our current era the gap between the wealthiest and the average person has become stupendously large.  Payne has argued that not only is inequality growth being driven by economic dynamics, but the response to growing inequality leads to destructive behaviors that actually contribute to even greater inequality.

Inequality breeds inequality?  If you weren’t worried about this issue before, perhaps now is the time to get on it.


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