Magazine article Poverty & Race

Mindful of Inequality?

Magazine article Poverty & Race

Mindful of Inequality?

Article excerpt

The naïve view of inequality is that it only matters if it makes the poor poorer, or if it is unfair. But the truth is that we have deep-seated psychological responses to the levels of inequality in society. Our tendency to equate outward wealth with inner worth means that inequality colors our social perception. It invokes deep psychological responses - feelings of dominance and subordination, superiority and inferiority - and affects the way we see and treat each other.

Our extraordinary sensitivity to being regarded as inferior is only too easily demonstrated. Indian children from different castes may do almost equally well in pen-and-paper tests when they don't know each other's caste. (Hoff & Pandey 2006) But the lower-caste children do much less well as soon as their status is known. Even the most subtle reminder that someone belongs to a social class, ethnic group or gender which is stereotypically regarded as inferior is enough to reduce performance. (Steele & Aronson 1995)

A few years ago, we published evidence that major and minor mental illnesses are three times as common in more equal developed countries as in the more equal ones. (Pickett, James & Wilkinson 2006) An American is likely to know three times as many people with depression or anxiety problems as someone in Japan or Germany. The differences are not a matter of awareness, definitions or access to treatment. To compare mental illness rates internationally, World Health Organization surveys asked people in each country about their mood, tiredness, agitation, concentration, sleeping patterns, self-confidence and so on, which have been found to be good indicators of mental illness.

More recent studies have found the same pattern. One, looking at the 50 U.S. states, found that after taking account of age, income and educational differences, depression is more common in states with more income inequality. Another study, which combined data from over 100 surveys in 26 countries, found that schizophrenia is around three times as common in more unequal than in less unequal societies.

Mental Disorders

So what is happening? In an important research paper, Sheri Johnson, a psychologist at Berkeley, and her colleagues have reviewed a vast body of evidence from biological, behavioral and self-reported accounts, suggesting that a wide range of mental disorders may originate in a "dominance behavioral system." (Johnson, Leedom & Muhtadie 2012) Part of our evolved psychological make-up and almost universal in mammals, it is a system for recognizing and respondRichard ing to social ranking systems - to hierarchy, power and subordination. Brain imaging studies suggest that there are particular areas of the brain and neural mechanisms dedicated to processing social rank. (Zink et al. 2008)

Johnson suggests that conditions such as mania and narcissism are related to inflated perceptions of, or striving for, status and dominance. In contrast, anxiety and depression seem to involve responses to, or attempts to avoid, subordination. Conditions like antisocial personality disorder and psychopathy, which involve egocentrism and lack of empathy, are probably also features of a strong social dominance drive. Bipolar disorder may involve oscillations between striving for status and dominance and feelings of defeat and inferiority.

If these conditions are related to dominance and subordination, you might think it suggests only that things like narcissism would be more com- mon at the top of the social hierarchy, and others, like depression, at the bottom. But while depression is much more common lower down the social ladder, it exists at all levels in society: Few are immune to feelings of defeat or failure. Similarly, people can be narcissistic or strive for dominance at any level in the hierarchy, even though psychologist Paul Piff has shown that higher status is associated with more unethical and narcissistic behavior. (Piff et al. …

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