Richard Wilkinson, the British social scientist who may well be the world’s most perceptive researcher on the “psychosocial” impact of economic inequality, will never forget a conversation he once had with a prison psychologist. Over his 25 years of prison practice, the psychologist told him, he had yet to see an act of violence not caused by people feeling disrespected or humiliated.
Analysts all around the world have noted the power of these “triggers to violence.” In South Africa, by some measures the world’s most unequal nation, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation has traced the vast majority of homicides to “arguments that got out of hand.”
In the United States, FBI statistics show, over half of our murders stem simply from “the sense that someone had been dissed.” In unequal societies, “minor” slights routinely turn into major tragedies
But why? What does inequality unleash within us? Social scientists have a hunch. The more unequal a society, they note, the more status matters. With rising inequality comes rising status anxiety. None of us want to be seen as “losers,” and we especially want to avoid that status in societies where a rising gap between “winners” and ‘losers” has upped the competitive stakes.
So we do we can to be seen as winners. We buy, for instance, the consumer goods that signal success. We even go deep in debt to buy them. And if we can’t afford these “usual markers of status,” as Maia Szalavitz noted this past December in a Guardian analysis, we cling ever more ferociously to our only remaining source of value, our self-respect.
“If your social reputation in that milieu is all you’ve got,” explains Martin Daly, a neuroscientist at Canada’s McMaster University, “you’ve got to defend it.”
In more equal milieus, by contrast, these intense pressures to save face — at any cost — do not poison our every social interaction. We can be bumped without feeling bruised.
In these more equal societies, where we rank on the status hierarchy simply matters less, since most people stand on the same economic rungs. But if the gaps between those rungs should start widening, then where we rank can trigger us to fury.
“Economic inequality,” as University of Melbourne pychologist Nick Haslam sums up, “has very real psychological and social consequences.”
Real — and much too often deadly.
Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. Among his books on maldistributed income and wealth: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970. His latest book, The Case for a Maximum Wage, will appear this spring. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.