As societies have developed, technological advances and medical discoveries have increased life expectancy and made our lives seemingly easier.
But this development is not experienced equally by all people.
In general, industrialised nations have a high quality of life. Yet stark differences remain in how wealth and benefits are spread across society. This is called income inequality.
Sadly, income inequality is a global phenomenon. The distribution of wealth across the globe shows that 71% of the world’s population hold just 3% of the global wealth. On the other hand, 8% of the population hold over 84% of the world’s wealth.
Income inequality is especially pronounced in the United States, where the income gap is twice that of the rest of the industrial world.
So you might be thinking, why is this important? Here are 3 reasons why you should care about income inequality:
1. Less happiness and life satisfaction
The more wealth a society has the happier that society will be, right?
Well, not quite.
In 1974, Economist Richard Easterlin showed that Americans were not happier during periods of high economic growth.
Some countries, however, do show increased happiness with increased economic growth.
What can explain this difference? Income inequality.
In a study of 34 countries, researchers found that when income inequality is high, increased economic growth is not associated with increased happiness.
When economic inequality is high and people can see the wealth of others, it may make their relative lack of economic prosperity more obvious.
We become aware of the differences in our own economic gains, and the difference in our lifestyles. This, in turn, can reduce our sense of happiness and wellbeing.
Reflecting on how we consume social media, platforms such as Instagram give us daily access to the life of the rich, through accounts like the rich kids of instagram, which boasts “They have more money than you and this is what they do.”
2. More obesity and related health problems
When thinking about how income inequality affects health, it’s reasonable to think that your personal wealth would be the main determinant of your personal health.
You may conclude that income inequality only affects the health of the poor, but you’d be wrong.
Higher obesity and related health conditions such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease are present amongst all social classes in societies with higher income inequality.
Regardless of personal wealth, people living in countries with greater income inequality experience poorer health outcomes than their counterparts in more equal societies.
People in a laboratory setting, who were made to feel relatively poor, ate 54% more calories, rated the high calorie food as more enjoyable, and were more likely to want to buy higher calorie food in the future that those who were made to feel rich.
Outside of the laboratory we also find that the more income inequality, the higher rates of obesity in a society.
This shows us that inequality has a direct effect on our lifestyles.
3. Less generosity and trust
Higher income inequality makes the wealthy less generous and breeds a sense of entitlement—the belief that one is more important and deserving than others. However, in more equal societies, the wealthy are just as generous as the poor.
People in areas with high income inequality also trust each other less. When there is less trust in society, people are more likely to only look out for themselves, and their families.
We’ve established that inequality has detrimental effects for all. Yet it is not always communicated as something that is bad.
Politicians often frame inequality in a way that hides the full picture. They highlight economic mobility—the sense that everyone can move up the wealth ladder—and related concepts such as the American Dream.
For example, Rick Santorum recently said: "There is income inequality in America, there always has been, and hopefully, and I do say that, there always will be. Why? Because people rise to different levels of success based on what they contribute to society.”
Be aware that this framing has profound effects on our psychology. People become more tolerant of income inequality the more they perceive economic mobility. In truth, economic mobility is not as widespread as people think.
So next time you hear politicians praise inequality, remember the burden falls not just on the poor, but on all of society.
- Zahra Mirnajafi
Why do people do things that harm others?
Socially harmful behaviours, like discrimination and hate speech, are still common in modern society. But where do these behaviours come from?
According to self-determination theory, pro-social behaviours (like tolerance and fairness) come from within, because we have a personal desire to engage in them. In contrast, harmful acts are normally motivated by an external source, such as social pressure to conform.
For example, school bullying may be encouraged by those classmates that intimidate other students. In order to avoid being bullied, and also to become close to the popular children in school, some kids may also start bullying others.
To summarise, helping other people gives us real pleasure and enjoyment, while harming others only brings recognition from others and helps achieve our goals.
Even though discrimination is not truly motivated by our own values and beliefs, from this perspective, is it possible that harmful behaviour can become a part of our identity and represent who we really are?
Discrimination can be a consequence of social norms
One cause of discrimination are the social norms associated with the groups we belong to.
In an attempt to fit into society, we follow the norms of our own groups. These norms, however, are not always oriented to benefitting the interests of people in other groups.
For example, an organisation with racist norms that dictate choosing job candidates that belong to the Caucasian ethnic group rather than choosing based on qualifications, will motivate the recruiter to follow these norms and to discriminate against certain ethnic groups.
We may follow discriminatory norms in order to feel we fit in with our group, or that doing so promotes our group’s values or goals.
When a behaviour is considered normal in groups we belong to, but is actually inconsistent with what we personally believe in, this creates a sense of conflict within our identity.
Compartmentalisation helps us deal with inner conflict
This feeling of contradiction between our values and our situation reflects an underlying resistance to engage in harmful actions.
For example, a recruiter who personally believes that job candidates should be hired based on their merit will feel an internal conflict when following the firm’s discriminatory norm.
In response to inner conflict, we tend to separate the harmful (e.g., discriminatory) behaviour from other life situations and contexts. This is called compartmentalisation.
Going back to the example where Caucasian candidates are preferred when hiring, this would mean that the conflicted recruiter would restrict ethnic discrimination behaviour only to work situations and would not generalise it to other life contexts.
By using this compartmentalisation strategy, the harmful social behaviour is restricted to a particular life context and does not become representative of the entire person. From the self-determination perspective, compartmentalisation also protects one’s identity from negative evaluation.
People do not enjoy discriminating against others
Many people want to believe that human nature is inherently good, and that no one would willingly harm others and feel good about themselves. The results of our studies confirm that people who discriminate do not necessarily enjoy their actions harming others. Rather, they are more likely to feel an internal conflict when discriminating.
On this positive note, we conclude that harmful behaviors are somewhat more difficult to accept as a part of who we are. Although specific life situations may sometimes dictate discriminatory actions, they generally bring less pleasure and enjoyment. Instead, causing harm to others evokes feelings of internal conflict and dissociation, which the majority of us will try to minimise.
- Guest post by Ksenia Sukhanova and Catherine Amiot, Université du Québec à Montréal
Read full article:
Amiot, C. E., Louis, W. R., Bourdeau, S., & Maalouf, O. (2017). Can harmful intergroup behaviors truly represent the self?: The impact of harmful and prosocial normative behaviors on intra-individual conflict and compartmentalization. Self and Identity, 1-29.
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.