Social Interactions in the Context of Income Inequality

Broadly speaking, this blog is about how we humans are utterly social creatures. But the truth is that, as a scientist (and social creature myself), a main driver of my efforts to study how social creatures think, feel, and behave is the hope that I can help further understanding of what facilitates positive social interactions and the psychological and physical benefits that such interactions bring, as well as what damages our social ties, fraying a social fabric that already shows considerable wear and tear.

These are difficult times. The world is facing enormous challenges, among them destructive civil wars and humanitarian crises, religious strife, hunger and poverty, the consequences of climate change, natural disasters, and the list goes on. In the U.S., we’re living in severely divisive political times, with a historic midterm election on the horizon. Gun deaths continue, wreaking devastation and havoc to communities and our collective sense of safety. And among developed nations, we have witnessed one of the steepest climbs in income inequality in the past half decade, leaving us with the largest gap in our nation’s history between the have’s and have-not’s among our citizens.

Income inequality worries me deeply. The data come from all directions—medicine, epidemiology and public health, the social sciences—together pointing to an alarmingly broad array of deleterious outcomes associated with income inequality. For example, among developed nations, those with greater inequality suffer from higher rates of mental illness, infant mortality, obesity, teenage pregnancy, violent crime, imprisonment, poorer educational performance, and life expectancy. Much of these data are correlational—meaning they demonstrate that income inequality and bad outcomes are linked, but fall short of basic scientific criteria for claiming that inequality causes these outcomes. And much of the data come from studies wherein income inequality and outcomes are measured on a large scale—for example, at the level of states or countries. What do the effects of income inequality look like at the level of individuals—at the level of us social creatures in the course of our everyday social lives? Does income inequality have harmful effects on the nature of our social interactions and ties?

Over the past several years, my collaborators, students, and I have been working on uncovering the negative effects of income inequality on our social relations, testing the broad hypothesis that inequality breeds social discord, damaging relationships among strangers, acquaintances, neighbors, colleagues, friends, and spouses. We’ve conducted several studies in which we create a situation of “income inequality” between two individuals in a laboratory setting and assess how the individuals perceive, judge, and behave toward one another. For example, in one study we asked two individuals to role-play a scenario in which they are running an art gallery. The individuals were randomly assigned to play the role of either the Assistant or Owner of the art gallery and to receive a specific payment for their efforts. The payment discrepancy between the two individuals was manipulated to be either mildly unequal ($4 for the Assistant vs. $6 for the Owner) or highly unequal ($1 vs. $9).

So what happened? Regardless of the role they played, people assigned to the condition where payment was highly unequal reported less positive emotion, less of a desire to affiliate with their partner (e.g., less interest in getting to know them better), and judged their partner as less warm, competent, and trustworthy relative to those who were led to believe the payment was only mildly unequal. In other words, when people were led to believe that “income inequality” was quite high, this sullied their judgments of their partner.

What’s more, the two individuals in this study interacted via an online video chat platform, enabling us to code video recordings of their interactions. Independent coders rated each person on various interpersonal behaviors, including expressed warmth, acknowledgement of their partner (e.g., accepting and integrating their opinions), dominance/submissiveness, and expressed happiness. Regardless of the role people were assigned to play, those in the high inequality condition, relative to those in the mild inequality condition, expressed less warmth and happiness while displaying greater dominance toward the other person.

Overall, findings like these are part of a growing body of causal evidence suggesting that income inequality can have detrimental effects on how we social creatures behave toward one another. The damaging effect of inequality on any single social interaction is not the concern here. Rather, if we play out the logic here, letting these effects continue unabated, accumulating and spreading across the nation, the concern is we’ll be left with a social fabric in tatters.

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