The Situationist

A Call for More Research on the Psychology of Inequality

Posted by Adam Benforado on December 9, 2011

Last spring, I had the pleasure of participating in the 2011 PLMS Conference: The Psychology of Inequality.  As chronicled on this blog (and elsewhere), it was a tremendous group of speakers and many of the talks have continued to resonate as issues of inequality have continued to boil up, particularly in the form of the Occupy movement.

One of the issues that is particularly interesting to me is how people react when confronted with evidence of inequality.  The psychology is complicated because people’s reactions are contingent on numerous situational variables.  For one thing, different people seem to have very different tolerances for inequality.  For another, it seems to matter whether the context is one of system threat or general optimism.

A number of mind scientists are busy at work documenting and sorting out these details and in the process we are learning a tremendous amount about how inequality is perpetuated.  One of the things that researchers have discovered is that those who are motivated to do so are incredibly adept at minimizing even the starkest data.

On Monday, for example Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist with the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics at U.C. Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, pointed out that according to the 2011 Forbes 400, five children and one daughter-in-law of the founders of Wal-Mart have a total combined worth of $69.7 billion, which is equivalent to the total wealth of the bottom 30% of American families.

To me, that is absolutely staggering information.  Read it again: six people on the Forbes list have equivalent wealth to roughly one-third of all American families taken together.  To me, this is a clear sign that the need for reform is urgent.  But for other people, this isn’t troubling at all.  It’s not that they are being facetious; they genuinely view the data differently than I do.

Because of this divergence, I would argue that before we can make any sort of the changes that would address the growing inequality in the United States (which I believe we must do as a society from a both practical and moral perspective), we need to spend more time and energy understanding why some people don’t see a problem in the first place.

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One Response to “A Call for More Research on the Psychology of Inequality”

  1. [...] A Call for More Research on the Psychology of Inequality – via thesituationist.wordpress.com – One of the issues that is particularly interesting to me is how people react when confronted with evidence of inequality. The psychology is complicated because people’s reactions are contingent on numerous situational variables. For one thing, different people seem to have very different tolerances for inequality. For another, it seems to matter whether the context is one of system threat or general optimism. [...]

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