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The psychology of inequality

In The Impact of Inequality Wilkinson argues that one of the most difficult aspects of life for all species, not just humans, is that members of the same species compete for scarce resources. This means that the potential for competition and conflict is high. ‘How human societies deal with this problem’ writes Wilkinson ‘provides the basis of their social structure.’ (286) Early human life appears to have been similar to many primate species, such as baboons, and based on dominance hierarchies. In this environment fear dominates and those in lower status positions have to be submissive or risk being attacked. Wilkinson claims that during the ‘hunter gatherer’ period which followed, people had equal access to resources and the social structure became egalitarian. Hunter gatherer societies emphasised reciprocity as well as the exchange of gifts. This type of social order can be seen in many of the great apes where support and reciprocity dominate and mutual grooming underpins social relationships. For human beings this egalitarian social order was eroded by farming (‘settled agriculture’). Scarcity, in the form of famines, as well as surpluses resulted in the evolution of a pronounced social hierarchy or class system and unequal access to resources. All modern societies, claims Wilkinson, lie between the two extremes of pronounced dominance and inequality and co-operation and affiliation  and as, human beings, we have the capacity to operate in either type of social system. He writes:

Human beings are … programmed for both kinds of social interaction and tend to make sharp distinctions between dominance behaviour up and down the social hierarchy and affiliative behaviour between equals. … These two forms of social interaction are merely the two opposite extremes of the ways in which we can conduct social relations: at one pole they are a matter of power and self-interest and, at the other a matter of social investments, trust and reciprocity. In practice, social life involves varying mixtures of the two.  251/2

Quoting from researchers such as Robin Dunbar, Wilkinson also argues that human beings’ large brains, and speech, have evolved to allow us to interact socially with others and that  we have great powers to empathise and identify with others’ predicament and feelings. While we are capable of acting in ways to exclude and discriminate against others, thus reinforcing our own status, our psychological make-up leads us to experience real shame and embarrassment if others treat us as inferiors or if we even think we are being judged as unequal in the eyes of others. As the Scottish thinker Willa Muir once said: “It is relatively easy to be proud and poor when  everybody of consequence is poor; it is far from easy  when money begins to spread itself.” She wrote this decades ago but recent data is proving her right: surveys shows that these negative experiences about ourselves have a detrimental affect on health.

Wilkinson cities studies of non-human primates where hierarchies are central to the social structure which show that animals who have been forced into submission by a higher ranking animal then turns and attacks other lower in the pecking order. Primatologists call this the ‘bicycling reaction’  because ‘animals show their back to the top while kicking towards the bottom’. R. M. Sapolsky describes how this plays out in baboons:  'Such third-party displaced aggression accounts for a huge percentage of baboon violence. A middle ranking male gets trounced in a fight, turns and chases a subadult male, who lunges at an adult female, who bites a juvenile, who slaps an infant.'(225)

The term (Radfahrer-Reaktion) originally came from Adorno’s work The Authoritarian Personality, written in an attempt to understand why the Jews had been scapegoated in Nazi Germany. Wilkinson asserts that the ‘bicycling reaction’ can be seen in the increased number of racist attacks during periods of unemployment and economic hardship. He also cites data which show that the worst problems of racism in the United States are in those with the most pronounced income inequality.

This bicycling reaction can also be seen in men’s relationships with women. Research into 16 non-patriarchal, pre-industrial societies showed that domestic violence was unheard of. Modern societies, particularly those with pronounced inequality and strong macho values seem to encourage domestic violence.   Indeed the domestic violence researchers, Russell and Becky Dobash argue that women are much less likely to be beaten up in societies where there is relative equality of the sexes. Conversely, research in the USA shows that women married to men employed in hierarchical settings, such as the armed forces, are twice as likely to be beaten by their husbands than other women in their society. Wilkinson claims that women’s position in general is prejudiced in societies with pronounced income inequality and strong dominance hierarchy among men. ‘In a more aggressive culture, where male power is what counts, women will be more subordinated and have lower status relative to men’ writes Wilkinson.

It is important to realise that societies with a pronounced dominance hierarchy, it is not just women who suffer – men do as well:

The costs are shown in their increased levels of violence, more risk-taking behaviour (from car crashes to sexually transmitted diseases), excessive drinking, and cardiovascular diseases. … there is a ‘culture of inequality’ that is no only more violent and aggressive, but more macho. 218/9

Wilkinson claims that ‘there have now been over fifty studies showing a clear tendency for violence to be more common in societies where income differences are larger.’ (p.4) This violence can show up in homicide figures or in violent attacks. The argument here is that men at the bottom of the dominance hierarchy feel bad about themselves but are not likely to tackle the dominant males. Instead they are more likely to attack one another in an attempt to get some respect. Indeed Wilkinson argues that ‘the most frequent trigger of violence is people feeling they are disrespected and dishonoured.’ (148) To support this contention Wilkinson quotes James Gilligan, a prison psychiatrist and Director for the Study of Violence at Harvard:

I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed and humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed, and that did not represent the attempt to prevent or undo this ‘loss of face’ – no matter how sever the punishment, even if it includes death.  (p. 149)


'The Impact of Inequality: How to make sick societies healthier', Wilkinson, R. G., 2005, New Press.

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