The doorbells have stopped ringing, the candy is sorted, and the jack-o-lanterns candles are snuffed out. Nothing has gone bump in the night and the kids are sleeping soundly in their beds. Yet, I remain haunted by a question that stubbornly echoes in mind the last few days: Is Team Human’s vision viable in a highly unequal society? Emerging behavioral science research suggests it may not be.
In The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die, author Dr. Keith Payne takes a fascinating and fresh take on the topic. This book doesn’t seek to overwhelm you with mind-numbing statistics, vociferous opinions, and endless editorializing on income inequality. Those books are a dime a dozen AND you can also find books that emphasize different statistics and argue with equal conviction that income inequality is not worth worrying about. Payne succeeds in elevating beyond petty tribal rhetoric and demonstrates through powerful and ingeniously designed behavioral research that simply feeling unequal or inferior those around you causes you to act in profoundly different ways than you otherwise would.
I feel compelled to share upfront that Americans are nearly universal in their stated desire to live in an equitable and fair society regardless of political party, gender, or income. One brilliant experiment in the book re-creates and validates John Rawls’ veil of ignorance thought experiment as an actual experiment. The study participants "beneath the veil" were presented with two different pie charts (one relatively unequal and one relatively equal) of the actual income distribution in actual countries and asked which one they'd prefer to live in (names of the countries not listed). As you might predict, folks overwhelmingly opted to live in a society whose income distribution was equitable as opposed to inequitable. This was true for 89% of six-figure income earners, 92% of income earners making less than $50,000, 90% of Republicans and 94% of Democrats. A persistent desire for fairness is just part of what makes us human, To be clear, there is a partisan divide over whether or not income inequality is a “very big problem (Pew Research Study, Oct 2018).”
Now, get ready for the mind-blowing part…this paradoxical partisan divide is exactly what the emerging theory predicts. Payne writes, “Behavioral experiments and historical data both point to the same conclusion. As our economic worlds diverge, so, too, do our politics. It becomes ever more difficult to see those on the other side of the aisle as well-meaning individuals who share our goals (…) Instead, the other side begins to look more and more like enemies.” When US political polarization is mapped against the US Gini index for the same time period (see picture below), their growth trends are disturbingly similar.
Payne makes accessible treasure troves of enlightening cutting edge research and data from across fields of behavioral sciences, biology, and economics that strongly supports his central thesis: experiencing relative inequality drastically affects one’s behavior, decision-making, and even quality of life. Many of these observed effects are repeatable and predictable.
For example, one particularly troubling study demonstrates that feeling disadvantaged relative to others can heighten and exaggerate perception of racial differences. The variable group in this study were told other participants in the same study received $100 dollars for their participation, but they were only going to be getting $10. They were then asked to classify bi-racial photos as black or white. The control group was simply told everyone gets $10 dollars and then asked to classify the same biracial photos. The $10 group that felt unfairly treated perceived the persons in the photos as having "darker skin" and looking "more stereo typically black." Relative disadvantage literally increases our desire to see the world as black and white, us and them.
Despite all this, my conviction in our vision remains: Together, we envision a world where every person recognizes themselves in the other, enabling a tomorrow where we all can be human together. It appears that income equality is an issue that merits our full awareness and deliberate consideration in pursuit of our vision. It is our contention that any legitimate effort to rediscover our shared humanity must make a good faith effort to understand the unpleasant obstacles that obscure it in the first place.
Thank you for walking this path with us. Please consider checking this book out of your local library or purchasing it on Amazon and letting us know YOUR reaction. Use the comments below, hit us up on FB or Twitter, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.