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This May Be the Most Alarming Research Yet About Inequality

David Callahan

Does extreme inequality make us anxious and depressed? Does it make us narcissistic and egotistical? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. 

Or at least that's the suggestion of a bunch of new research studies that look at how people cope psychologically with high levels of economic and social stratification. That research is summarized in a fascinating piece on the New York Times website entitled "How Inequality Hollows Out the Soul."

Naturally I was interested to see this piece having just written my own post on Friday about how inequality makes people worse, morally and ethically, because it fosters greed, materialism, social isolation, and rule breaking. 

But the psychological case against inequality is somewhat different. The authors write that people are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety in countries where inequality is great. Why? Because one "of the important effects of wider income differences between rich and poor is to intensify the issues of dominance and subordination, and feelings of superiority and inferiority." And these feelings undermine mental health. 

None of this is all that surprising. The authors write: 

Humans instinctively know how to cooperate and create social ties, but we also know how to engage in status competition — how to be snobs and how to talk ourselves up. We use these alternative social strategies almost every day of our lives, but crucially, inequality shifts the balance between them.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that we become less nice people in more unequal societies. But we are less nice and less happy: Greater inequality redoubles status anxiety, damaging our mental health and distorting our personalities — wherever we are on the social spectrum.

Research like this is important because it expands the indictment against extreme capitalism and growing inequality to new terrain. The economic discussion of inequality has long been calcified in a highly polarized way, with a good swath of Americans unworried about the economic effects of inequality and blaming the poor for their lack of success. I've hoped that this polarization would ebb as new evidence emerges that inequality slows economic growth by undermining consumer demand (because there's only so much the rich, who take an ever big slice of the income pie, can spend.) But opinion polls aren't showing much movement yet. 

Examining the psychological impact of inequality may be a way to change the conversation and widen the circle of concern about growing income gaps, perhaps drawing in an Oprah crowd that doesn't tend to engage much with economic analyses. 

Inequality deniers have been adept at championing success and wealth, arguing that it's wrong to criticize or punish those who rise to top. But nobody can like the idea that we're turning into a society of more depressed and unpleasant people.