Inequality Leads to Anti-Social Behaviors

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“More unequal societies tend to have worse health, more obesity, more violent crime, more political instability, and more institutional corruption.

[also] economic inequality breeds mistrust and status competition. These have downstream effects on health and well-being in more unequal societies.

Mistrust

inequality is associated with:

– a generalised distrust of other people.
– People who see large economic disparities tend to believe the economic system is unfair and others are advancing themselves by questionable means.
– This lack of trust is amplified by high levels of class-based segregation in unequal societies,
– which reduces opportunities for people to interact outside their socioeconomic bubbles.

The combination of distrust and unfamiliarity contributes to a lack of social cohesion and a sense that socioeconomic divides are deep and inevitable.

Mistrust undermines social connection and civility. Studies comparing US states find that residents of more unequal states are less likely to participate in social groups, a form of disengagement associated with poorer health outcomes according to Australian research. Wealthy residents of these states are also less likely to contribute to charity.

People in more unequal American states even show differences in their personality and willingness to engage in immoral behaviour. One study found they score relatively low on agreeableness – a trait that includes tendencies to be friendly and cooperative.

Another revealed that people from these states were more likely to conduct Google searches for academic cheating aids.

Diminished trust in economically unequal societies may have large social effects. Low generalised trust partially accounts for the relationship between inequality and mortality observed in a sample of 33 countries, which endures even when public health expenditures are statistically controlled. It also partially explains the link between inequality and homicide rates in those countries.

In short, a society where people do not trust one another is at risk of ill health and violent crime. Such societies tend to have relatively large economic disparities.

Status Competition

…mistrust is only one of the psychological processes that account for inequality’s adverse social effects. The other is status competition. People in highly unequal societies are more concerned with where they stand on the status hierarchy.

Status anxiety may appear as fears of losing one’s economic standing or concerns about how others perceive it. That concern may manifest itself in consumerism. Residents of more unequal US states engage in more searches for high status consumption items, such as luxury brands.

This preoccupation with displaying high standing may even influence people’s sense of self. In a study[20] led by my research group, people from more economically unequal countries were most likely to see themselves as above average on desirable characteristics. “Self-enhancement” of this sort is a key ingredient of narcissism.

Under these conditions, richer participants were less likely to contribute to poorer ones and behaved in a self-interested way to retain their wealth. Overall cooperation among participants dropped, the network of social connections thinned out and opportunities for wealth creation were missed.

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