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
2016 was a year of unexpected political events. Britain decided to leave the European Union (“Brexit”), and Donald Trump became the president of the United States.
People without university degrees strongly favoured Trump and Brexit
Exit polls following both Brexit and Trump votes revealed that University education was one of the strongest predictors of voting patterns.
According to a BBC report, wards where the population had lower numbers of University graduates tended to vote for Britain to leave the European Union. In fact, of the main demographic information collected in the most recent UK census, the proportion of University graduates in a given ward was the best indicator of whether people voted in favour of Brexit.
Similarly, Trump won 44 of the 50 counties with the lowest rates of tertiary education in the US. In contrast, only 10 of the 50 counties with the higest rates of tertiary education voted for Trump.
So why did British and American citizens without a University degree vote in favour of Brexit and Trump?
In the U.S. the disparity in job availability between people with and without University Degrees has risen since the 2008 recession
A prominent complaint among Trump voters was that the previous government had been “out of touch” with the working class. At least one aspect in which this appears to be true is in relation to unemployment numbers following the recession of 2008. In his final State of the Union address President Obama proudly proclaimed that America was in the middle of “the longest streak of private sector job creation in history”, and that anyone claiming America’s economy is in decline was “peddling fiction”.
It is certainly true that America saw significant growth in private sector jobs during Obama’s presidency. Yet there is increasing evidence that these jobs disproportionately went to people with University qualifications. According to a recent study conducted at Georgetown University, U.S. workers with Bachelor’s degrees or higher lost 187,000 jobs in the recession, but then recovered around 8.4 million jobs in the years since. In stark contrast, workers with a high-school diploma or less, lost 5.6 million jobs in the recession, and recovered only 80,000 to date. From the perspective of these Americans, who lost their jobs during the recession and never got them back, it is easy to imagine how Obama’s statements on jobs growth could be perceived as “out of touch”.
Workers with more than a high school education gained almost all of the jobs added in the recovery
(Source: Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, America's Divided Recovery)
The views of university educated people are over-represented in government and the media
One notable aspect of this divided recovery since the recession is that, in both the U.K. and U.S., university educated people are still a minority. In fact, according to census data from both countries, the proportion of all adults holding a University degree is around 33% in the U.S., and 20% in the U.K. If the voices of people without University degrees do indeed represent the majority, how did democratic government policies (which are meant to be influenced by majority opinion) lead to so many falling through the cracks during the years following the recession?
One explanation may be that the under-representation of non-University educated individuals in government and the media meant that these institutions were not properly equipped to understand the needs of non-University graduates. At least 90% of members of parliament in both the U.S. and the U.K. have University degrees. A study in the U.S. also found that over 90% of journalists are University graduates. It is also possible that this over-representation of University educated interests was an underlying driver of one of the key themes in both the Trump and Brexit elections – a desire to overthrow the political establishment.
What does this mean for Australia?
Senator Pauline Hanson (leader of the One-Nation party) has often been compared to Trump. Indeed, a study conducted by the ABC, found that, like in the U.S. and U.K., people living in areas with low tertiary education levels were more likely to vote for One-Nation in the 2016 Federal Election.
Although not as pronounced as the U.K. or U.S., Australia is also experiencing disproportionate job growth for University educated workers. To a certain extent, this disproportionate increase in jobs requiring a University degree may be an unavoidable reality for many modern industrialised nations. As countries get more developed, higher basic wages often mean that it becomes less viable for companies to continue manufacturing goods there. Higher wages also mean that companies are driven to adopt automation in order to cut costs.
However, in the face of such rapid changes, we also need to ensure that our political institutions adapt accordingly, so that they do not become out of touch with the interests of certain sections of our society. As with the U.S. and U.K., the disproportionate increase in jobs requiring tertiary degrees, combined with a lack of representation of the voices non-University graduates in our institutions may lead to the division of our own politics by University education.
The first step in communicating across this divide is realising that lack of representativeness is a problem. It is also essential to ensure that there are conventional institutional avenues in government and the media by which less well-educated communities can express grievances and needs, and meaningfully participate in public discourse.
Understanding group conflict and moral polarization is a major focus of my PhD.
- Joshua Rhee
Joshua Rhee is a PhD Candidate at The University of Melbourne's School of Psychological Sciences. He completed his Honours research in the Social Change Lab in 2016.
From Indonesia to Australia, many modern States face demands by majority religious groups to have their beliefs institutionally prioritised.
For example, in their submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Melbourne Gospel Assembly stated that the Australian government is obligated to respect the Christian religion as its first and foremost responsibility.
Similar calls have been made by Islamist groups in Muslim majority countries. The poll investigating whether the Sharia (Islamic social order) should be made the official law in Muslim majority countries revealed a widespread support, with 99% in Afghanistan, 83% in Morocco, and 71% in Nigeria.
Followers of a religion may identify with their religious group. Likewise, citizens of a country may identify with their national group.
In many countries, religion plays its role in providing values that delineate nationalism. However, there are also religious movements that utterly reject nationalism and struggle instead for a religion-based state.
So what makes religious and national identities support one other? And what makes them destroy each other? My research points to 3 key factors.
Historical context shapes ideas about the relationship between religion and nation
A state must emerge from the collaboration of many groups who work together.
Indonesian history, for instance, has been constructed by many groups representing various tribes, political ideologies, and religions. Islam, as the religion of the majority in Indonesia, has strongly influenced the establishment of the Republic.
As a result, most Indonesian Muslims today believe that their Islamic faith and Indonesian nationalism are two sides of the same coin, even though Islamic social order does not formally rule the country. This belief stems from the historical consensus that established divine values as the primary foundation of the Indonesian state. Further, most Muslims perceive that the Indonesian state is the outcome of the early Muslims' struggle.
Such historical beliefs strengthen the connection between religious and national identities, meaning an individual’s self-image may be developed based on both religion and nation. This pattern might be found in many countries where religious values supported the struggle to establish the state.
Not all countries, however, show this reciprocal relationship between religious belief and national identity.
A study conducted across thirty European countries showed that nationalism influences religious values only where there is a high concentration of religion. Further, nationalist ideology only affects religious beliefs where a dominant religion exists.
What factors support religious movements to reject their nationality and demand a radical change of the existing state?
Religious fundamentalism may lead to national dis-identification
Religious fundamentalism has been proposed as a factor influencing the relationship between religious and national identities.
Religious identification and religious fundamentalism are not the same.
We define fundamentalism here as one set of cognitive schemas that filters the selection of information to provide a framework for interpretation. This set of schemas promotes beliefs that religious rules allow only one interpretation and must be prioritized over secular laws. It can also lead to bigotry and hostility toward outgroups.
Religious beliefs have been demonstrated to promote national dis-identification among people high in religious identity. People who are high in fundamentalist beliefs about their religion (i.e., belief that God has given humanity a complete, unfailing guide, which must be totally followed) may identify more with their religion but less with their nation. Such people conceive religious norms as God’s rules, while national rules are seen as political outcomes representing particular interests.
Perceived discrimination can promote dis-identification
Some European countries are facing difficulties in integrating the religious and national identities of their immigrants within their national identity.
Low political participation in a general election can be an indicator of dis-identification with the nation. Many efforts have been exerted to improve civic engagement among immigrants, for example through the mobilisation of mosques.
However, societal factors such as perceived discrimination and injustice also play a role in national dis-identification.
Group based discrimination and injustice can be a catalyst for heightening tensions, provoking anger and disappointment. Even when discrimination is not sanctioned by the state and is only promoted by a small group of political actors, the negative feelings can be attributed to the imagined concept of the nation. On a certain scale, group-based anger can be expressed in reluctance to provide political participation.
In this way, immigrants who are highly identified with their religion, and who perceive discrimination based on religion, may become dis-identified with the nation. In contrast, feelings of freedom and inclusion can create a positive association between religiosity and nationalism.
To summarise, the relationship between religious and national identities is complex. Historical contexts may fuse national and religious identities, while fundamentalist beliefs or societal tensions and group discrimination may cause them to diverge.
Exploring the difference between religion as a bridge and religion as a wall is part of the focus in my PhD.
- Susilo Wibisono
Around the world, people are marching.
They’re marching to overthrow dictators. Some are defending religious viewpoints, or drawing attention to climate change. Others want less immigration, or better working conditions.
Does all this activity really achieve anything? One of the factors that affects movement success is the way that confrontational and moderate groups define themselves and relate to each other, within a broader movement.
When movements define “us” and “them” it affects who wants to join
A movement that garners support from policy makers and the public is in a better position to achieve success.
Movements can grow their supporter base if they pay careful attention to how they position themselves. Framing a movement as aligned with (or opposed to) the broader community’s values and interests has real consequences.
In the short term groups that grow the fastest are often more confrontational. That is to say, they may oppose traditional values or approaches.
We define confrontational groups here as aiming to eliminate a particular behaviour that still has strong support, or to defeat an enemy respected by many. We contrast this with moderate movements, aimed at winning over opponents through persuasion. In both cases, we are referring to non-violent groups aiming for system change – but they don’t always work well together.
A confrontational group grows quickly towards the extremes
Confrontational groups often appeal to people with strong pre-existing views.
A clearly identified problem. A policy strongly condemned. A clearly defined line of attack. These tactics are more likely to appeal to people with strong views. To them, the moderate group may seem waffly or uncommitted.
Clarity of focus often leads to swift success for confrontational groups, because committed activists’ time, energy, and moneys flow to the groups that best express their strong views and values. So they grow quickly.
A confrontational group draws attention to a cause. For many simple problems, this may be enough to achieve social change. But an impasse can be reached when the group needs to reach out to the centre or to opponents to create enough momentum for a breakthrough.
A confrontational group can’t easily compromise
The past strong attacks and views of the confrontational group may have made it unattractive to the unaligned or centre voters, and lead to alienation of their political opponents.
When mistrust and negative views take hold, it is extremely difficult to progress an agenda. Persuasive communication to win over swing voters or opponents may be viewed with scepticism. Genuine attempts to reach out may be seen as insincere or offensive.
Confrontational movements may also be reluctant to entertain the idea of trade-offs with their enemies, because they are defined by their strong, pure rejection of those enemies.
If a conciliatory leader does emerge in a confrontational movement, it may be hard for him or her to gain traction. A conciliatory leader of a confrontational movement sometimes can’t persuade their own group easily to compromise, and they can’t persuade the other group to deal with them either, because of the past history of conflict.
Moderate groups grow slowly toward the centre
With more genuine mutual respect, and less past baggage to carry, the moderates may be both more attractive to uncommitted or centrist members of the public. They are also more able to build trust with political opponents of the cause.
Successful moderates build trust with opponents in part by condemning, tempering, or reining in the savage attacks of more confrontational groups. They also highlight shared values between themselves and their political opponents. These steps create the impression among members of political opponents that moderates are people that can be dealt with.
At the same time, successful moderates have to maintain a clear agenda to make progress towards a stated cause – they have to achieve measurable, clear outcomes. Unless there is both clarity of purpose and progress towards the movement’s ends, moderates may be seen as giving away too much in attempting to obtain leverage.
Confrontational groups should attack the other extreme, not the centre
As moderates achieve frustratingly minute, incremental changes, it is common for moderate groups to attract derision and hostility from confrontational groups for the same cause.
This negativity misunderstands the potential for positive synergies between the two types of groups.
If the confrontational group attacks the moderates, the partisan divide between the sides widens. It is common for stalemates to persist.
Political opponents who are more hostile and polarised can surge to power, dragging the centre away from the movement’s desired change.
The confrontational movement should instead focus its criticism on the other extreme, targeting the most reactionary and hostile members of their political opponents.
By seeking to undermine the most hostile opponents and alienate them from the middle ground, the confrontational movement is well placed to increase the momentum for change.
- Winnifred R. Louis
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This blog builds on some ideas from a chapter that I wrote with some students (Louis, Chapman, Chonu, and Achia, 2017), covering the key themes from a keynote that I gave in Cebu, at the Asian Association of Social Psychology.
After the recent US election people on the political left went into a frenzy mulling over all the reasons why Trump won.
Is America just full of racists? Are people scared of their economic prospects for the future? Are people sick of political corruption and want to “drain the swamp”? Has Government regulation gotten out of hand?
You heard all the discussions on the news, between your co-workers, and in your Facebook feed. Everyone had an expert opinion.
But what does the science actually say? Here are three factors that psychological and political science suggest explain Trump’s popularity.
1. Opposition to immigration rises in times of prosperity, not recession
We typically think that countries become more restrictive in their immigration policies when they suffer economically. Yet in the 4 years leading up to the 2016 election, the United States had steady growth in GDP, the job sector, and hourly pay rates.
With the economy doing so well, why did we see anti-immigrant sentiments flaring in this election cycle?
Despite common beliefs, research shows that that societies are actually more likely to oppose immigration when they are doing well economically. From America to Austria, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, we see right-wing parties rising to power during periods of economic prosperity.
2. It’s not just the poor; the rich also oppose immigration
After the election you probably heard that the working poor of America were the ones that supported Trump because of his tough stance on immigration. They thought immigrants would steal their jobs.
But it’s not just the working poor, but also those doing quite well economically that are likely to oppose immigration. The research shows that, indeed, those with higher disposable income are just as likely to oppose immigration as those who have the least disposable income.
It’s suggested that this is partly driven by fear of future deprivation. However, the idea that the poor vote conservatively is not supported by data. In fact we find the median income of Trump supporters was $72,000 (compared to the national median of $56,000).
3. Conservative nostalgia for the ‘good old days’
“Make America great again” was the central slogan of Trump’s campaign. This glorification of the past is a common thread in the rise of right-wing parties.
Right-wing politicians tend to glorify the past and highlight how bad we’re doing in the present (even when it’s not objectively true). This creates a sense of urgency.
When people hear this type of talk they are more likely to support drastic changes and the right-wing parties that propose these changes.
The following clip, from Ava Duverney’s documentary the 13th (available on Netflix), highlights glorification of the past and the need to be tough in Trump’s election campaign (as well as the link to racist policing and crowd violence). Warning: strong language and violence.
So next time you hear your friends, family and media pundits arguing the rise of Trump and the Right, you’ll know at least three factors based on research as to how these parties, and these politicians rise to power!
- Zahra Mirnajafizadeh
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.