The Science of Inequality


Class warfare“Class Warfare!” cry the Republicans every time one points out income inequality and diminishing economic mobility in our society. It is actually quite surprising that a country with such enormous wealth as the United States ranks among the lower third in equality; this is in the face of the fact that richer societies tend toward greater equality. From a statistical point of view, this makes us an outlier on the distribution curve. So what gives?

In her book “Envy Up, Scorn Down” the Princeton social psychologist, Susan T. Fiske blames Americans’ “just world” beliefs (people get what they deserve), and their tendency to equate poverty with incompetence.

As the Republican mantra (or more crassly, their talking points) goes, we are a nation devoid of feelings of envy. All we aspire to is becoming rich. This is only partly true: Most people do want to be rich. But what about the envy part?


What does science say?

When people think about other people, the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) lights up in fMRI studies. Fiske, the social neuroscientist, went a step further. She showed her student-volunteers images of people belonging to different social and economic classes. Viewing images of most classes activated the mPFC, as expected. But images of two social classes failed to activate: homeless and drug addicts—two groups who elicit high levels of disgust. The psychological questionnaires that followed made it clear why: These classes elicited feelings of scorn, of being somewhat less than complete humans.

Why should there be a region in the brain that compares us to other individuals and groups? Fiske’s explanation, based on seminal research in evolutionary psychology and social cognition, is that these comparisons are the foundation of self-knowledge; it tells us how we stack up against others, or more broadly, our place in the world. I remember vividly how this class consciousness came into view when I was chatting with a cab driver in London. It was election season in Britain and the cabbie, obviously “working class”, said he was going to vote for the Conservatives. To my incredulous question, his reply was “because I know where I stand; the Tories always managed the country, and us working-class people always made a hash of it when we tried”.

According to Fiske, our social behavior is based on two broad classes of motives: “agency” and “communion”, in psychological terms, of in her words “competence” and “warmth”. We admire competent people even if they lack in warmth. We despise incompetence, (including poverty) if it is accompanied by lack of warmth. What about poor people who don’t lack in warmth? We allay our pangs of conscience by, for instance, putting our impoverished elderly in nursing homes, out of sight. Social programs to keep them amidst us are considered a handout; warehousing them at a much higher cost is preferred.


The political ramifications

So, is the Newt Gringrich portrayal of Romney as a rapacious capitalist going to be successful? The answer is not straightforward. On the one hand, Capitalism is an article of faith in the U.S; any attack on the economic system will fail because we think in terms of a “just world”. But inherent in this belief system is the assumption of fair play, of reward for hard work, and playing by the rules. Defining Romney as a predatory capitalist who did not play by the rules of fair play is bound to hurt him. In general, portrayal of the country club elite as rich and successful puts them in the category of competent, an admirable trait, however cold and unfeeling they might be; but if accompanied by predatory behavior, a lá Gordon Gekko of “Wall Street” fame, the admiration and envy are replaced by infamy and disdain. This can be fatal to any political ambitions they may have harbored. And they know it, too; witness Romney’s jeans, open shirt, and rolled up sleeves, or Scott Brown, the Republican senator from Massachusetts, crisscrossing the state in a beat-up pickup truck during his run for the Senate.

So the claim that we are not envious people, that we don’t begrudge the rich their wealth is only partly true. We are social animals like any other people, with feelings of envy and despise, and deep belief in playing by the rules of law and morality.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


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