The Broken Ladder
“…..pushing ourselves up the ladder in our own minds is not the only way we make the most of our social comparisons. Sometimes we pull other people down” (Keith Payne)
“…each step we take along the road of inequality in countries across the world we take a step up the ladder of the social problems…” (Keith Payne)
“…we are not simply the products of our thoughts, our plans, or our bootstraps” (Keith Payne)
Today’s post is about a really interesting book I have been reading The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Live, Think and Die by Keith Payne, α social psychology professor and researcher. The book covers α wealth of ideas supported by a lot of research. As a result, this post is quite lengthy, but it definitely does not cover all the topics explored in the book. The book basically discusses disparities in different areas of our life and offers a framework to understand inequality, its causes and dire consequences through anecdotes, personal stories and many studies informed by behavioural science, psychology theories, and neuroscience. He writes: “Have you ever been on a stationary train when a train next to you departs? It feels for all the world as if you are suddenly moving in the opposite direction. As the upper classes have become steadily richer, both the middle class and those living in poverty have felt poorer and poorer by comparison. But this feeling is not just an illusion. As we will see in the pages ahead, it has deadly serious consequences.”
The book highlights the multiple threats that inequality poses to the health, growth and well being not only of the disadvantaged, but also, society and communities at large. He goes back in time to describe how inequality and hierarchy are interconnected and explains how inequality divides politics, erodes corporation, increases violence, propagates biases, influences and distorts our beliefs and impacts what we become, our health and stress levels, Payne considers intersectionality and explores how multiple factors like class, ‘race’, gender, and socio- economic status determine our life experience and compound problems of inequality, and the toll it takes for the poor, but also, society at large. He also focuses on the many interacting factors that contribute and compound wealth gaps and on the qualitative difference between racial and income inequality and how they intersect. About his book Payne writes that “shelves full of books have been written on the causes of economic inequality, focusing on such large-scale historical trends as advances in technology and globalized trade patterns, or political policies like taxation and spending priorities. This book does not deal with such analyses. Rather, it examines what inequality does to us as people.”
Payne explores how both our objective socio-economic status, as well as, our perceived status have a great impact on our lives. He writes: “We have to take subjective perceptions of status seriously, because they reveal so much about people’s fates. If you place yourself on a lower rung, then you are more likely in the coming years to suffer from depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. The lower the rung you select, the more probable it is that you will make bad decisions and underperform at work. The lower the rung you select, the more likely you are to believe in the supernatural and in conspiracy theories. The lower the rung you select, the more prone you are to weight issues, diabetes, and heart problems. The lower the rung you select, the fewer years you have left to live.”
Our comparison tendency and craving for status are such ancient parts of our nature that we share them with baboons, chimpanzees and other primates. This similarity shows that the trait was likely already present in our common ancestors. Payne writes: “If humans are not unique when it comes to caring about status, one distinction that we can claim is that we have built social ladders of such height that they dwarf those of our primate relatives and ancient hunter-gatherers. This quantitative difference sets the stage for conflicts between the scale of inequality in which we evolved and the scale that we confront today.” Payne refers to archaeologists findings, which tell us that for the vast majority of our evolutionary history, human societies were relatively egalitarian, but when societies became more hierarchical, kings and pharaohs would be found buried with mounds of treasures, and occasionally even their dogs, wives, or slaves, while the graves of the lower classes might be found with nothing but a blanket, if they were lucky. The basic reason that hunter-gatherers were more egalitarian was not that they were more benevolent than we are today, but rather that it was difficult to accumulate dramatically more wealth than others. Most likely early human groups had a status hierarchy, with some people ranking higher than others, but because before farming they could not gather significant amounts of wealth, and because they lived in small groups it was not possible for the difference between the top and the bottom of the hierarchy to be very big. Payne writes: “The natural social structure of early Homo sapiens was a Status Ladder, but it was a very short one”
There is data in the book of how we are both wired and acculturated to make comparisons and crave status. Our human tendency to compare can both be beneficial and cause suffering to ourselves and others. We can often perceive ourselves or our ingroup as better or superior. For instance, studies that have replicated the Lake Wobegon effect, after Garrison Keillor’s fictional town “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average” have found that people consistently believe that they are better than others. For instance, Constantine Sedikides, Social and Personality Psychology professor, and colleagues asked a group of volunteers to rate how good a person they were on several dimensions. Payne writes: “The volunteers considered themselves to be more moral, kinder, more dependable, more trustworthy, and more honest than the average person— an unsurprising result, except that these volunteers were recruited by visiting a prison and enrolling convicted felons. The only category in which they did not consider themselves above average was “law abiding.” Here, they rated themselves as average. Considering that they were behind bars at the time they made that judgment, it seems to lack a certain objectivity. Over the years, hundreds of studies have replicated the Lake Wobegon effect. The studies show that most of us believe we are above average in intelligence, persistence, conscientiousness, badminton, and just about any other positive quality.” Payne believes that this tendency is the mother of all biases. He says “Most people rate themselves as more objective and less biased than the average person. Of course, pushing ourselves up the ladder in our own minds is not the only way we make the most of our social comparisons. Sometimes we pull other people down.”
High status comes with many benefits for survival and reproduction; however, Payne claims that today it seems that there is a mismatch between our evolved yearning for status and our modern economic environment. He writes: “In the past our ancestors who were status strivers left behind more descendants than their more languid competitors. As a result, they bequeathed to us a visceral appetite for status. Money, power, and the admiration of other people seem just as irresistible to many people as food and sex. The meek may eventually inherit the earth, but the proud have been in firm possession of it so far.” He claims that for thousands of centuries “the social ladders our minds and bodies have evolved to climb were only a few rungs high. If the contemporary world’s ladder were still on the kind of human scale to which we were once accustomed, then our urge for status might not be a problem, but instead we are facing the equivalent of scaling skyscrapers. Likewise, if we were a species that didn’t care much about status, then today’s massive inequality might be tolerable. But our intrinsic appetite for high status crashes against the towering inequality we see around us with enormous consequences for everyone, not just the poor….. Poverty and wealth are not just about absolute sums of money. In countries developed enough that the poor are not actually starving, the key factor is relative position.” From an economist’s point of view, poverty is very different from economic inequality. Poverty concerns what a person has or lacks, while inequality describes how money is distributed and it charts the gap between the haves and have-nots. However, from a psychological point of view, poverty and inequality are intertwined.
Concerning implicit bias Payne presents a lot of experiments and other research data that suggest that “Understanding implicit bias requires taking a more nuanced approach to the individuals we are easily tempted to label as racist or not racist. If you consider whether you yourself are biased and why, you will likely focus on your conscious thoughts and beliefs, your values and good intentions. Having reflected on what a fundamentally good person you are, you will conclude that implicit bias is other people’s problem.” For instance, we are as Payne states it “biased to look through the specifics of a given situation as if they were a pane of glass and to explain behavior based on the characteristics of a person” This bias has been termed as the “fundamental attribution error.” The fundamental attribution error applies in diverse contexts. We reach fast conclusions based on generalizations and stereotypes and make assumptions about people. One reason we do this is because it is easier to think about people than situations, and it is easier to attribute a single cause than explore complex and dynamic contributory factors to explain things. .
However, the character flaw versus impoverished environment theories are basically a version of the old nature (character flaws) versus nurture (environment) debate. Payne writes: “Like any nature versus nurture discussion, it misses the larger point: Nature and nurture always work together, because what we have inherited genetically as humans is not a rigid set of behaviors, like those that send fruit flies fluttering toward a light. They are, rather, tendencies to react to changes in the environment in particular ways. The goal should be to comprehend how human nature has prepared us to respond in resource-rich and resource-poor environments, and to high and low levels of inequality. Once we do, we will understand why an individual brought up in a wealthy family would think and act differently than she would if she had been brought up in a poor family, and why an individual living in a situation of great inequality would behave differently than one living in conditions of equality…….. But as anyone who has lived in both poverty and affluence can attest, people do think and act differently in those very different worlds. One difference is how they consider the future.”
Research findings show how even short-term feelings of affluence or poverty can make people more or less shortsighted and that even subjective sensations of poverty and plenty have powerful effects. Psychologist Mitch Callan and colleagues (cited in Payne) predicted that when people are made to feel poor, they will become myopic, taking whatever they can get immediately and ignoring the future, whereas, when they are made to feel rich they will take the long view. Payne says these experiments suggest that any person thrust into these different situations will start behaving differently, and they also make us humble because they challenge our assumption that we are always in control of our own successes and failures and remind us that, we are not simply the products of our thoughts, our plans, or our bootstraps.
Apart from our evolved tendencies for social comparison and desire for status we have also evolved another common tendency between primates and humans – the need to enforce a basic code of fairness. Studies have shown that even children as young as three years old show reactions much like those observed in studies of capuchins when it comes to fairness. Payne refers to Rawls’ theory of justice, which was a thought experiment called “the veil of ignorance”. Payne writes: “Rawls’s insight was that if you simply ask people how much inequality they judge to be just or unjust, their opinions will be biased by their abilities and self-interest. The strongest, smartest, most competitive individuals will advocate for more unequal outcomes because they are starting with an advantage. Likewise, those with the worst prospects would opt for a more equal distribution. So, instead of expressing what they believe to be fair and just, people would opt for what benefits them. Although no one can eliminate the biasing influences of his own position entirely, Rawls thought that the exercise of peering through the veil of ignorance would enable us to see more objectively than we otherwise could. The veil of ignorance is only a thought experiment, of course, but a study by Rawls used the veil of ignorance to argue that once self-interest is removed, anyone can see that equality ought to be preferable to inequality. Norton and Ariely’s study confirmed that most people do in fact favor equality— up to a point.”
A lot of data supports that each step we take along the road of inequality in countries across the world we take a step up the ladder of the social problems. For instance, when the data within individual countries is examined a clear link between money and health is observed. In the data from a massive study of more than ten thousand British Civil Service employees that has been in progress since the 1960s, and which has a detailed hierarchy, with clearly defined job grades from cabinet secretaries who report directly to the prime minister all the way down to entry-level clerical jobs, it has been found that each rung down the ladder is associated with a shorter life span, This is striking, because the subjects in this study all have decent government jobs and the salaries, health insurance, pensions, and other benefits that are associated with them. Payne writes: “If you thought that elevated mortality rates were only a function of the desperately poor being unable to meet their basic needs, this study would disprove that, because it did not include any desperately poor subjects and still found elevated mortality among those with lower status. Psychologist Nancy Adler and colleagues have found that where people place themselves on the Status Ladder is a better predictor health than their actual income or education.”
So, how can something as abstract as inequality or social comparisons cause something as physical as health? Payne writes: “Abstract ideas that start as macroeconomic policies and social relationships somehow get expressed in the functioning of our cells. To understand how that expression happens, we have to first realize that people from different walks of life die different kinds of deaths, in part because they live different kinds of lives.” I think it’s easy to understand that economic hardship and low social status can lead to stress reactions and risky behaviours, and many studies have confirmed the link between status and stress both in primates and humans. For instance, Robert Sapolsky found that the lower the baboon’s rank in the pecking order, the higher its stress hormone levels and the more likely it was to suffer from stress-related illnesses such as ulcers, whereas, high-ranking males, had much lower levels of stress. Other studies have measured stress hormones and inflammation as people go about their daily life, and found that those who are poorer or who feel lower in status have slightly higher levels. In one study researchers found that the human social hierarchy was playing out and expressing itself throughout nearly every cell in the body on a scale of minutes.
Moreover, poverty and inequality also impact and distort our way of thinking and assigning meaning to events and things. One reason for this is that randomness and chaos feel threatening, but orderly patterns are reassuring for humans. They help us feel that the world is predictable, trustworthy, and controllable. Moreover, we usually assume that our beliefs about the world are driven only by the world itself, but our perceptions and beliefs are also driven by our situation, as well as, our conscious and unconscious biases, emotions, fears, needs and desires at any given moment. Payne writes: “Our minds are working hard at every moment tidying up the world, but inequality plods through the door with muddy shoes, bringing disorder in its wake. A key point to understand is that the human brain is a pattern detector. The brain is better at making inferences, leaps of logic, and filling in gaps based on assumptions. The brain fills in perceptual gaps….. it can at times interfere with our ability to recognize when no pattern exists at all. Imagine you buy a lottery ticket and choose six numbers. Which of the two number sequences is more likely to be drawn by chance: 1 2 3 4 5 6, or 43 7 17 38 9 24? The answer is that both sequences are equally likely. They don’t look equally likely, though, because we can easily discern a pattern in the first one, and a pattern seems like the opposite of randomness. ……. Randomness means there is no cause and effect. There is no correlation between what you do to pick numbers and what numbers come up. There is no pattern, and no order. The numbers are utterly devoid of meaning, other than denoting the winner.
Studies described in the book suggest that even transient feelings of helplessness made participants’ brains work harder to extract meaning from nonsense. For instance, people who feel powerless are more prone to believing in conspiracy theories. Payne writes; “At bottom, conspiracy theories are about two things: power and distrust…… Whitson and Galinsky investigated the link between power and conspiracy theories with the same methods they used to study power and pareidolia. They conducted an experiment that made one group of subjects feel powerless and another feel powerful. They then showed both groups several, conspiracy-based explanations for everyday events and asked how plausible they seemed. The group that had been made to feel powerless found the conspiracy explanations more believable than the group that felt powerful. Feelings of insecurity cued by poverty and insecurity and the us-versus-them divisions fostered by inequality provoke us to embrace extreme ideologies, simplistic beliefs and prejudices that may provide easy answers, but do so by sabotaging the healthy functioning of society. Payne writes that “the human mind is often compared to a computer, but it’s more like the Internet itself: a dense web of interconnections of ideas and information. Like the Internet, that web of associations contains plenty of smut and nonsense along with indispensable knowledge. Implicit biases are the raw, uncensored results of traveling along those associative links. And, as with the Internet, sometimes what is on the other end of a link is disturbing.” Our good intentions and our conscious beliefs and values don’t necessarily always defend us against unintended biases and distorted beliefs, as Payne found himself while he was testing out a bias test that he was developing. He writes: “Sitting there in my lab, trying to beat my own bias test and failing, I felt for the first time the discomforting gap between my good intentions and my biased behavior, known as implicit bias.” A lot of our explicit and implicit biases stem from our very early learning. Kenneth and Mamie Clark (cited in Payne), African American scholars, who developed a method of studying racial bias with even very young children, realized some time ago that if we want to gauge how society’s values and expectations seep into our minds, we should look at the minds of children, the best cultural sponges we have.
It has also been found that high levels of inequality would be a better predictor of unhappiness. For instance, the Oishi study discovered that the inequality-happiness link was strongest among the poor, but it also affected the middle class. In fact, it affected everyone except the wealthiest 20 percent. Payne writes that many social problems, from teenage births to school dropout rates to violent crime, are all higher in places with greater income inequality. So, it seems that reducing inequality, could potentially address many problems at once and it would require to both raise the bottom rungs of the social ladder and lower the top ones. He claims that fighting poverty is critical and an essential goal for both moral and practical reasons, but it is only half the battle. In developing nations, where poverty deprives people of basic human needs, it is clearly a higher priority than inequality. The necessity of seriously confronting inequality and not just material poverty suggests the startling conclusion that we cannot simply grow our way out of our current predicament.
Finally, Payne suggests that since social comparisons are an inevitable part of daily existence and relative comparisons are so ingrained in the way we judge just about everything, we could shift into comparing wisely (controlled comparison), but to do this we would have to first become consciously aware that we are doing it. He writes that “unconscious thoughts are not, as traditionally believed, walled off in some Freudian cave, impossible to access. Today psychologists consider most unconscious thinking to be of a different nature entirely……. Controlled comparison means, first, learning to recognize when we are in the grips of such a compulsion and, second, choosing wisely what kind of comparison is really relevant and useful. The idea here is not to stop comparing; it is to compare more wisely. Different types of comparisons have different effects. Upward comparisons make us feel poorer, less talented, and needier. So if your goal is to manage those feelings and desires, redirect your attention to a downward comparison instead. Am I suggesting here that you should think about others who are less fortunate than you in order to feel better by comparison? Doesn’t that seem mean-spirited and petty? Yes, I am, in fact, suggesting precisely that. Downward comparisons are not only the source of schadenfreude and smug pride; they can also be a source of gratitude…… Those upper and lower limits provide a sensible framework and perspective, reminding us that, while our situation could be better, it could also be far worse. While context can allow you to be a little more at peace with the way things actually are, if you are facing a major challenge and need every bit of grit you can muster, by all means indulge in some upward comparisons. Another option is to redirect your comparisons from other people to your own past. If you have overcome important challenges over the course of your life, then comparing your present to your former self has the advantages of comparing both upward and downward at the same time.”