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"Mindful of Inequality?,"

by Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett March/April 2014 issue of Poverty & Race

The naďve 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 less equally 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 responding 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 common 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. 2012) He found that drivers of more expensive cars were less likely to give way to pedestrians or to other cars; higher-status people were also more likely to help themselves to candies they had been told were intended for children. They also had a greater sense of entitlement and were less generous.

Dominance and Subordination

One of the important effects of bigger income differences between rich and poor is to intensify issues of dominance and subordination, superiority and inferiority. Although there is always some connection between people’s income and the social class they feel they belong to, the match between the two is closer in societies with bigger income differences between rich and poor. (Andersen & Curtis 2012)

A recent study of 34,000 people in 31 countries found that, in countries with bigger income differences, status anxiety was more common at all levels in the social hierarchy. (Layte & Whelan 2013) Another international study found that self-enhancement or self-aggrandisement—presenting an inflated view of yourself—was more common in more unequal societies. (Loughnan et al. 2011) That may be why 93% of American students thought they were more skilful drivers than average, while only 69% of Swedes did. (Svenson 1981) We had predicted several years earlier that, because greater inequality increases status insecurity and competition, people in more unequal societies would feel they couldn’t afford to be modest about their achievements and abilities. (Wilkinson & Pickett 2010)

The recorded increases in narcissism rates in the USA (as measured by the Narcissistic Personality Inventory) coincide with widening income differences. (Twenge et al. 2008) Bigger material differences create bigger social distances. Feelings of superiority and inferiority increase, status becomes an essential part of how we judge each other, and we all become more neurotic about impression management and how we are seen.

The Imprint of Status and Class

With rising inequality strengthening all the ways in which status and class imprint themselves on us from early childhood onwards, we should not be surprised by the evidence that social mobility has slowed and equality of opportunity for children has become a more distant dream. (Wilkinson & Pickett 2010; Krueger 2012) Nor should we be surprised that all the problems more common lower down the social ladder—including violence, poor health, bullying, incarceration, low math and literacy scores, teenage births and lower levels of child well-being—all become anything from twice to ten times as common in more unequal countries. (Wilkinson & Pickett 2010) The USA pays a high price for being one of the most unequal of the rich developed societies.

Humans have lived in every kind of society, from the most egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands of our pre-history (described by Christopher Boehm in his recent book Moral Origins), to the most brutal tyrannies. We instinctively know how to be caring and sharing, creating social bonds of friendship, mutuality and cooperation. We also know how to do status competition, how to be snobs, looking up to superiors and down on inferiors, and how to talk ourselves up. We use these alternative social strategies almost every day of our lives, but inequality shifts the balance between them. A study covering 26 European countries found that people in more unequal countries were less willing to take action to help others—whether the sick, elderly, disabled or others in the community. (Paskov & Dewilde 2012)

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that we become less nice people in more unequal societies. One of the better-known costs of inequality is that people withdraw from community life and are less likely to feel that they can trust others. This is partly a reflection of the way status anxiety makes us all more worried about how we are valued by others. But good social relationships are key to human well-being. Study after study shows that they are highly protective of health (Holt-Lunstad, Smith & Layton 2010) and essential to happiness. (Layard 2005; Dunn, Aknin & Norton 2008) And now that we can compare robust data for different countries, we are reminded of what we once knew intuitively—that inequality is divisive and socially corrosive.

Richard Wilkinson is a Professor Emeritus of Social Epidemiology at the Univ. of Nottingham, Honorary Professor of Epidemiology at University College London and a Visiting Professor at the Univ. of York.
Kate Pickett is a Professor of Epidemiology at the Univ. of York and a National Institute for Health Research Career Scientist. She is co-founder of The Equality Trust with Richard Wilkinson.
An abridged version of this article appeared as a New York Times “Opinionator” column on Feb. 2, 2014.

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