Everybody wants to talk about inequality. Now we must worry about who sits at the table

There is a lot of talk about inequality these days. It’s been already a while that the World Bank and the OECD talk about it. Now, no less than the IMF was arguing that inequality is a problem and that we shouldn’t be afraid of redistribution.

All this concern about inequality from the top is very welcome. 20 years after Atkinson urged economists to “Bring Income Distribution in from the Cold”, it seems that inequality has indeed finally been brought in.

However, it is not enough to have inequality back at the table, it also matters who sits at the table. Listening to the IMF and OECD talk about inequality can make one feel like discussions of African development without Africans, or panels on gender equality without (or with few) women. Economically disadvantaged people ought to be at the table where inequality is discussed. Otherwise it makes one worry about elites highjacking the agenda, and tailoring reforms to their advantage.

Representative democracies offer everyone a little bit of political power to decide who sits at the table. So who are the economically disadvantaged sending to the table? Are they sent to talk about inequality? It turns out from around the world the political behavior of the less well off is often puzzling form an egalitarian point of view:

  • As inequality in Western Countries has gone up, demand for redistribution has not followed suit (Kenworthy and McCall 2008).
  • Some unbelievably unequal countries, such as South Africa, remain unequal despite democratic change. In fact, in South Africa, at least until recently, people were not demanding more redistribution than in more egalitarian countries (Pellicer et al. 2011; Pellicer, Piraino, and Wegner 2018).
  • The growing support of far right parties in the West by the less well off appears driven more by identity concerns than by material (let alone egalitarian) concerns (Card, Dustmann, and Preston 2012; Mansfield and Mutz 2013; Schmuck and Matthes 2017).
  • There is also mounting evidence that in many countries where service provision is highly unequal, disadvantaged people often do not punish corrupt or incompetent politicians at the ballot box as much as one would expect.

Of course, there may be many reasons that explain each of these “puzzles”, and there certainly is a fair deal of literature on each of them. But the big question is: is there a common thread uniting this issues? Are there barriers generally preventing the less well off from demanding egalitarian change in democracies?

This is of course a very difficult question and people have grappled with it for a long time (Harms and Zink 2003). In the past this was often cast in terms of lack of education, that the poor had a “false consciousness” and were easily “manipulated”. Nowadays few would explicitly make this point in the academic world, but this perspective remains quite alive in the public sphere.

There are now new perspectives on the question that focus on the many psychological challenges that the poor face, in terms of scarcity and of low status. Focusing on these challenges, rather than just assuming essentially that the poor are dumb, seems a more promising avenue to address the puzzles of the political behavior of the poor.

I would like to focus here on some recent work on the psychology of inequality legitimation.

Our assumptions about how the poor should act often come from a simple model where we all essentially just want to maximize utility form income. So the poor ought to be the first to support egalitarian platforms that promise to improve their income.

In a new working paper, I argue that this may be the wrong way of thinking of how we all, and particularly people of relatively low socioeconomic status, make their political decisions.

The idea is that poverty implies low income, but also typically low social status. And having low status is psychologically tough. To all of us. There is evidence that low status is associated to deep and painful emotions, such as shame. People from different cultures tend to unconsciously associate shame and low status (Tracy et al. 2013). The body postures associated to shame are similar to those of low status primates when showing submission. In fact, shame is probably an emotion evolved precisely to convey the information to ourselves and to the rest of our group that we are of low status (Gilbert 2016; Steckler and Tracy 2014).

So we are wired to feel strongly about our low status. The question is, what do we do with the emotion of shame associated to the perception of low status? How do we “cope” with this psychological threat? In the paper, I argue from the literature that there are essentially four types of coping strategies.

One way is “problem focused”. This means that you attend to the source of the problem that is generating you stress. In economics/ rational choice lingo, this corresponds to maximizing consumption/ income.

But the key here is that there are other “natural” ways of reacting to the psychological threat that imply dealing directly with the negative emotion, rather than dealing with the source of the emotion. So we may engage in emotion-focused coping.

It’s like when you are criticized in a setting where you feel insecure. Think about when you were presenting your work when young and insecure, or when you started dating someone. Criticism hurts because it implies that there may be something wrong with us. And we can react to criticism in different ways. We can react to the content of the criticism and assess its merits (problem focused). Or we can react to the “hurt” (emotion-focused), and rather get aggressive, or withdraw and get depressed.

People of low SES live in a world that “criticizes” them all the time. There is recent evidence that social status is communicated and understood rather rapidly and accurately (Kraus, Park, and Tan 2017). People of low status are viewed as less competent, and this relation is causal (Fiske 2010). Recent research in public policy argues that what unites the poor in Uganda, India, and other countries such as Norway, the perception of shame (Walker et al. 2013).

In the paper, I argue that reactions to shame can develop into coping styles and ultimately have implications for political behavior. So it is no accident that the less well off are particularly likely, not only to demand more redistribution (problem focused coping), but also to support populist parties (aggressive coping) and also to not participate in politics at all (withdrawal coping). And I review literature from political science and social psychology that supports the connections between these coping styles and their corresponding political behaviors.

Card, David, Christian Dustmann, and Ian Preston. 2012. “Immigration, Wages, and Compositional Amenities.” Journal of the European Economic Association 10 (1): 78–119.

Fiske, Susan T. 2010. “Interpersonal Stratification: Status, Power, and Subordination.” Handbook of Social Psychology.

Gilbert, Paul. 2016. Depression: The Evolution of Powerlessness. Routledge.

Harms, Philipp, and Stefan Zink. 2003. “Limits to Redistribution in a Democracy: A Survey.” European Journal of Political Economy 19 (4): 651–68.

Kenworthy, Lane, and Leslie McCall. 2008. “Inequality, Public Opinion and Redistribution.” Socio-Economic Review 6 (1): 35–68.

Kraus, Michael W., Jun Won Park, and Jacinth JX Tan. 2017. “Signs of Social Class: The Experience of Economic Inequality in Everyday Life.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 12 (3): 422–35.

Mansfield, Edward D., and Diana C. Mutz. 2013. “US versus Them: Mass Attitudes toward Offshore Outsourcing.” World Politics 65 (4): 571–608.

Pellicer, Miquel, Patrizio Piraino, and Eva Wegner. 2018. “Perceptions of Inevitability and Demand for Redistribution: Evidence from a Survey Experiment.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.

Pellicer, Miquel, Vimal Ranchhod, Mare Sarr, and Eva Wegner. 2011. “Inequality Traps in South Africa: An Overview and Research Agenda.”

Schmuck, Desirée, and Jörg Matthes. 2017. “Effects of Economic and Symbolic Threat Appeals in Right-Wing Populist Advertising on Anti-Immigrant Attitudes: The Impact of Textual and Visual Appeals.” Political Communication, 1–20.

Steckler, Conor M., and Jessica L. Tracy. 2014. “The Emotional Underpinnings of Social Status.” In The Psychology of Social Status, 201–24. Springer.

Tracy, Jessica L., Azim F. Shariff, Wanying Zhao, and Joseph Henrich. 2013. “Cross-Cultural Evidence That the Nonverbal Expression of Pride Is an Automatic Status Signal.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 142 (1): 163.

Walker, Robert, Grace Bantebya Kyomuhendo, Elaine Chase, Sohail Choudhry, Erika K. Gubrium, Jo Yongmie Nicola, Ivar LøDemel, Leemamol Mathew, Amon Mwiine, and Sony Pellissery. 2013. “Poverty in Global Perspective: Is Shame a Common Denominator?” Journal of Social Policy 42 (02): 215–33.


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