A review by Jeremy Tuman
Many people understand that wealth inequality, the gap between the poorest and wealthiest members of a society, has drastically increased in recent years, both in the United States and in other countries. We know, for instance, that C.E.O.-to-worker pay was quantified fifty years ago in double-digits, around twenty to one, but that now the ratio is around 360 to one. Depending on one’s political leaning, one might be inclined to dismiss such numbers as irrelevant or to view their relationship to negative social trends as more than correlation. In his book, The Broken Ladder(Viking, 2017) psychologist Keith Payne, of the University of North Carolina, builds a case for the argument that inequality does, in fact, more than correlate with negative social trends and personal behaviors. The effects of inequality on our brains, our behaviors, our decision making, our perceptions of the world, even our life spans, are real, he argues, are quantifiable, and are in fact quite destructive.
The book proceeds from several key premises laid out in the introduction and in the first two chapters: perception of status is an evolved biological trait; perception of status is subjective, entirely relative, and most often inaccurate; and perception of status, not poverty itself but rather the degree of inequality that exists and where we perceive ourselves on the scale, what he calls the Status Ladder, directly contributes to, in some cases solely creates, a wide range of negative human behaviors and traits.
In support of these premises, Payne unleashes a dizzying array of experiments and studies, from psychologists, political scientists, economists, and scientists from eras before these disciplines were codified. One of the strengths of the book is the conversational tone with which Payne presents these studies. A huge amount of research and an outsized knowledge of the history of human-behavioral studies is masked by this tone, which presents experiments as if your friend just read about it in the New Yorker and is telling you about it over a beer. Thusly, a densely researched and heavily scientific book is written to a broader audience. Yet the number of examples and speed with which Payne covers them also create some problems.
Payne moves through his examples quickly, which enhances the sense that many examples move in one direction toward support of his points. But some examples are blown through too quickly, without needed information for them to have their desired effect. For instance, in Chapter 2 he presents a study from the 1950s on the effects of expectation on our perception of weight. Subjects were asked to pick up a series of weights and to describe the weights on a scale of “very light” to “very heavy.” When a heavy weight was picked up after a light one, subjects described it as very heavy. When a light weight was picked up after a heavy one, subjects described it as very light, which was all expected and what other studies had shown, even at the time. But then the researcher asked subjects to move a tray of weights aside so that another set could be brought in. Payne then tells us that when subjects picked up the next tray, the weight of the previous tray did not affect their perceptions of its weight. This example is all to show that expectation only affects our perception in some cases, that there are certain situations when the expectation principle applies, and others when it doesn’t. Payne writes that “comparisons we make are more sophisticated than we commonly assume” and moves on to his next rapid-fire example.
But the example is hard to envision, and therefore less convincing, without some key information: Were subjects asked to rate the weight of the second tray? Did it, in fact, weigh more or less than the first tray? What rating did subjects give the second weight? And why tell us specifically what subjects rated the weights, but omit what they specifically rated the tray?
Payne employs this rhetorical strategy of many quick examples throughout, and to linger over any particular one would alter the effect, although he does return to examples. But for a reader who accepts his premise, that perception of inequality is psychologically damaging, perhaps more so that actual material conditions, to be denied answers to those questions that would flesh out these examples to greater effect feels disappointing.
That said, many of the experiments are fascinating: Monkeys refusing to even look at pictures of lower-ranking monkeys; Other monkeys refusing a treat reward once one of greater value is introduced; Butterflies taking greater risks, where failure means starvation when faced with food scarcity. And of course, the human subjects of many of the experiments conform to Payne’s theories of the effects of inequality in what he calls “sobering” ways. In the relativity section, subjects who ate from an actual bottomless soup bowl (with a hidden tube keeping it full) reported feeling just as full as the subject who had eaten one actual half bowl of soup, that is, half. In a different experiment involving a gambling game, subjects who were told that others had won a large amount of money took bigger swings, and misses, than subjects who were told that others won a small amount. In perhaps the most sobering experiment, subjects who were told they had done well in a game were far more likely to vote to restrict the power of other players who they believed had done poorly. Players who were told they’d done poorly or in the middle were far less likely to vote to limit the power of other players. And to cap it, the players who were told they’d done well wanted to move to prevent the rules from subsequently being changed.
All players had actually performed roughly the same, with the gap between the best and worst performers much smaller in reality than they were told. Thus, Payne’s point is proved again and again, on this scale at least: Perceptions of these differences are acting on our brains more so than the differences themselves. Again and again, places with the highest inequality correlate neatly with indexes of well-being, and of misery. The wealth of the place matters little, as readers understand by America’s place among the wealthiest nations, coupled with its middle-rank in categories such as infant mortality rate, and its outsized place regarding incarceration and gun violence. One interesting result of the state-to-state comparisons finds the state of Iowa sitting atop indexes of well-being, health, and happiness, as well as atop the list of states with the least inequality. One can only imagine the positive, or at least less negative, impact on one’s psyche to be gained by living in such a state.
Payne compartmentalizes his argument to attempt to show the effects of inequality on different aspects of our lives: our views of ourselves, our faiths, our propensity for risk, our race and our views of race, and our politics. This approach, like his approach to citing studies, simplifies the argument and makes it more accessible to a wide audience. But like his approach to experiments, this one creates some problems as well. Our lives are not neatly compartmentalized, and it becomes a challenge at times to prevent our thoughts about one aspect from clouding his argument about another. For example, his discussion of political leanings seems logical enough: our values do not map onto our political positions as linearly as we might assume. A fascinating study he presents showed subjects filling out a survey on sociopolitical issues such as taxes, welfare, and regulation. They were then asked to explain some of their answers and corresponding positions, but before they did, half of their answers on the surveys were changed to the opposite without them knowing. Almost no one noticed. Instead, almost everyone proceeded to defend the answers they’d been told they’d given. The defenses were passionate, and the implication was clear. Our values and political leanings are not as fixed as we think. Everything is relative.
This conclusion alone might make current liberals or conservatives bristle. How on earth, a liberal might wonder, could I confuse my own views with those of someone who denies evolution, or who believes that minority races and ethnicities are inherently more lazy and more criminal? Payne then moves further to make a connection to inequality, as he does in every chapter. The move, through some other studies and points, is that our presumption that our values underpin our politics is wrong, and that our inclination to vote a certain way is underpinned in large part by how poor or rich we feel, that is, in relation to others. To support this contention, Payne offers how “the tendency for the rich to vote Republican is stronger in poor states than in rich ones. So, if you are a wealthy Mississippian, you are much more likely to vote Republican than if you have the same wealth in New York and Connecticut.” Payne says the reason is not completely understood, but he suspects it has to do with relative comparisons. An income of $200,000 per year feels bigger in Mississippi than it would in Manhattan, where one might feel middle class.
This conclusion certainly makes sense, and many would agree with it, but perhaps Republican voters in Mississippi were not the best example to choose to draw it. In doing so, Payne asks us to forget all we know about the violent, racist history of wealthy, conservative Mississippi. The concentration of wealth at the white top, along with the oppression, subjugation, and prevention of wealth accumulation of black Mississippians has been the state’s ongoing social project since its ratification. It’s a big ask for readers to believe that rich Mississippians vote Republican because they feel rich. Here Payne’s compartmentalization approach throws us a curveball, as we cannot envision this hypothetical voter unanimated by racial bias. Perhaps he or she does exist, which would support Payne’s argument that the left and right view each other inaccurately.
Many of Payne’s own experiments involve creating differences of perceived status between people and charting their behavior accordingly. The experiments are logical and effective in confirming what many readers might presume to be true. But Payne’s challenge is to make his findings resonate with readers’ lived experience. Many readers will already understand that inequality is at a historical high, that a small number of ultra-wealthy people control as much wealth as millions at the bottom. Payne’s insights into how inequality affects our brains help explain and put words to phenomena that many readers already sense. His purpose here is not to offer solutions, which he states up front, but we can’t help but look to him for some. And it’s in this looking that readers may come up most lacking. While we can understand how bad behavior is exhibited more by first-class passengers and everyone else alike on an airplane divided by class than on one that isn’t, we have a harder time understanding how twenty subjects in a controlled experiment equate to the very real ultra-wealthy in our society, who are devoted to locking such conditions in place. Payne is right, and while his insights benefit us all, those in position to effect change are least interested in hearing them. Meanwhile, inequality only spirals upward, its causes and effects so widespread and intractable as to laugh in the face of psychologist’s experiments. In the end, Payne offers that we might, though this knowledge, “live more gracefully in this vertical world,” and in the end, we hope that grace may provide us succor against the effects of our much larger collective experiment.