The surprising consequences of inequality.
In a wide-ranging exploration of how we view ourselves in relation to others, Payne (Psychology and Neuroscience/Univ. of North Carolina) shows that “the social comparisons we make can alter how we see the world.” Going beyond obvious measures—e.g., income, education, and employment—the author argues that the key to understanding what lies at the heart of self-perception is the hunger for status, which humans crave. Comparing ourselves to the people we meet each day, and often falling short, we set ourselves up for acting and thinking in predictable, generally detrimental ways. For example, Payne recalls the moment from his school days when he discovered that getting a free lunch made him different. He soon noticed other kids dressed better, and so on: “Inequality makes people feel poor and act poor, even when they’re not.” Smartly blending personal observations with recent research in psychology and neuroscience (his own and that of others), he details how our perceived relative position in the scheme of things plays a “critical role” in shaping our biases, habits, and ideas. “There are good reasons,” he writes, “why people with different experiences tend to have incompatible understandings of the world.” In revealing vignettes, Payne describes how feelings of inequality help account for our political choices, unhealthy behaviors, racial prejudices, and tendency to seek meaningful patterns. He also explains why poor women often have more children and why working-class individuals are less inclined to plan for the future. We experience inequality most directly in hierarchical workplaces, and there would be far less job satisfaction if the extreme inequality in CEO pay was more widely known. In discussing the “implicit bias” involved in killings of unarmed black men by police, he cites numerous studies showing people are “more likely to think they saw a gun when it was linked to a black face.”
Though the author doesn’t break much new ground, he provides valuable psychological insights into our daily behaviors.