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← The psychology of inequality and political division

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Showing Revision 8 created 09/18/2020 by Erin Gregory.

  1. You've probably heard by now
  2. that economic inequality
    is historically high,
  3. that the wealthiest one-tenth
    of one percent in the United States
  4. have as much wealth
    as the bottom 90 percent combined,
  5. or that the wealthiest
    eight individuals in the world
  6. have as much wealth
  7. as the poorest 3.5 billion
    inhabitants of the planet.
  8. But did you know that economic inequality
    is associated with shorter lifespans,

  9. less happiness,
  10. more crime
  11. and more drug abuse?
  12. Those sound like problems of poverty,
  13. but among wealthy, developed nations
  14. those health and social problems
  15. are actually more tightly linked
    to inequality between incomes
  16. than to absolute incomes.
  17. And because of that,
  18. the United States,
  19. the wealthiest and the most
    unequal of nations,
  20. actually fares worse
    than all other developed countries.
  21. Surveys show that
    large majorities of Americans,

  22. both Democrats and Republicans,
  23. believe inequality is too high
    and want more equal pay.
  24. And yet as a society, we don't seem
    to be able to find the common ground,
  25. the consensus, the political will
    to do anything about it.
  26. Because, as inequality
    has risen in recent decades,
  27. political polarization
    has risen along with it.
  28. We see those who disagree with us
    as idiots or as immoral.
  29. Nearly half of Democrats and Republicans
  30. now think that the other side
    is not just mistaken
  31. but a threat to the nation.
  32. And that animosity prevents us
    from finding the common ground
  33. to change things.
  34. I'm a social psychology professor
    at the University of North Carolina,

  35. and I study the effects of inequality
    on people's thinking and behavior.
  36. I'm going to argue that it's not just
    an unfortunate coincidence
  37. that inequality and political division
    have risen together.
  38. There are good psychological reasons
  39. that inequality drives wedges
    in our politics.
  40. That means there are good
    psychological paths
  41. to improve both at once.
  42. To understand why inequality
    is so powerful,

  43. you have to first understand
    that we are constantly comparing ourselves
  44. to other people,
  45. and when we do that,
  46. we really like to come out on top,
  47. and we find it painful
    to be on the bottom.
  48. Psychologists call it
    the "better-than-average effect."
  49. Most people believe
    they're better than average
  50. at just about anything they care about,
  51. which isn't strictly possible,
    because that's just what average means.
  52. (Laughter)

  53. But that's the way people feel.

  54. Most people think
    they're smarter than average,
  55. harder working than average
  56. and more socially skilled.
  57. Most people think they're
    better drivers than average.
  58. (Laughter)

  59. That's true even if you do the study
    with a sample of people

  60. currently hospitalized
    for a car accident that they caused.
  61. (Laughter)

  62. So we really want to see ourselves
    as better than average,

  63. and if we find out otherwise,
  64. it's a painful experience
    that we have to cope with.
  65. And we cope with it
    by shifting how we see the world.
  66. To understand how this works,

  67. my collaborators and I ran an experiment.
  68. We asked participants to complete
    a decision-making task to earn some money,
  69. and in reality, everyone earned
    the same amount of money.
  70. But we randomly divided them
    into two groups,
  71. and we told one group
    that they had done better than average,
  72. and we told the other group
    they had done worse than average.
  73. So now we have one group that feels richer
    and one group that feels poorer,
  74. but for no objective reason.
  75. And then we asked them some questions.
  76. When we asked them,
    "How good are you at making decisions?"
  77. the better-than-average group
    said that they were more competent
  78. than the below-average group.
  79. The better-than-average group
    said that their success
  80. was a fair outcome of a meritocracy.
  81. The below-average group
    thought the system was rigged,
  82. and in this case,
    of course, they were right.
  83. (Laughter)

  84. Even though the two groups
    had the same amount of money,

  85. the group that felt richer
    said we should cut taxes on the wealthy,
  86. cut benefits to the poor.
  87. Let them work hard and be
    responsible for themselves, they said.
  88. These are attitudes that we normally
    assume are rooted in deeply held values

  89. and a lifetime of experience,
  90. but a 10-minute exercise
  91. that made people feel richer or poorer
  92. was enough to change those views.
  93. This difference between being rich or poor
    and feeling rich or poor is important,
  94. because the two don't always
    line up very well.
  95. You often hear people say with nostalgia,
  96. "We were poor, but we didn't know it."
  97. That was the case for me growing up,

  98. until one day,
  99. in the fourth-grade lunch line,
  100. we had a new cashier
    who didn't know the ropes,
  101. and she asked me for 1.25 dollars.
  102. I was taken aback, because I had never
    been asked to pay for my lunch before.
  103. I didn't know what to say,
    because I didn't have any money.
  104. And suddenly,
    I realized for the first time
  105. that we free lunch kids
    were the poor ones.
  106. That awkward moment
    in the school lunch line

  107. changed so much for me,
  108. because for the first time, I felt poor.
  109. We didn't have any less money
    than the day before,
  110. but for the first time,
  111. I started noticing things differently.
  112. It changed the way I saw the world.
  113. I started noticing how the kids
    who paid for their lunch
  114. seemed to dress better
    than the free lunch kids.
  115. I started noticing the big yellow blocks
    of government cheese
  116. that showed up at our door
  117. and the food stamps my mother
    would pull out at the grocery store.
  118. I was always a shy kid,
  119. but I hardly talked at all
    after that at school.
  120. Who was I to speak up?
  121. For decades, social scientists
    looked for evidence

  122. that feeling deprived
    compared to other people
  123. would motivate political action.
  124. They thought it would mobilize
    protests, strikes,
  125. maybe even revolutions.
  126. But again and again what they found
    was that it paralyzed people,
  127. because the truth is,
  128. feeling less than other people
  129. brings shame.
  130. It makes people turn away,
  131. disgusted with the system.
  132. Feeling better than other
    people, though --
  133. now that is motivating.
  134. It motivates us to protect that position,
  135. and it has important consequences
    for our politics.
  136. To see why, consider another experiment.

  137. Again, we asked participants
    to make decisions to earn some money,
  138. and we told one group
    that they had done better than average
  139. and the other group that they
    had done worse than average.
  140. And again, the better-than-average group
    said it's a fair meritocracy,
  141. cut taxes on the wealthy,
  142. cut benefits on the poor.
  143. But this time, we also asked them
    what did they think
  144. about other participants
    who disagree with them
  145. on those issues.
  146. Are they smart or incompetent?
  147. Are they reasonable or are they biased?
  148. The better-than-average group
    said anybody who disagrees with them
  149. must be incompetent, biased,
  150. blinded by self-interest.
  151. The below-average group
  152. didn't assume that about their opponents.
  153. Now, there are lots of psychology studies

  154. showing that when people agree with us,
  155. we think they're brilliant,
  156. and when people disagree with us,
  157. we tend to think they're idiots.
  158. (Laughter)

  159. But this is new because we found
    it was driven entirely by the group

  160. that felt better than average,
  161. who felt entitled to dismiss
    those people who disagree with them.
  162. So think about what
    this is doing to our politics,

  163. as the haves and have-nots
    spread further and further apart.
  164. Yes, a lot of us think
    that people on the other side are idiots,
  165. but the people politically engaged enough
    to be yelling at each other about politics
  166. are actually mostly the well-off.
  167. In fact, as inequality has grown
    in recent decades,
  168. political interest and participation
    among the poor has plummeted.
  169. Again, we see that people
    who feel left behind
  170. aren't taking to the streets to protest
    or organize voter registration drives.
  171. Often, they aren't even voting.
  172. Instead, they're turning away
    and dropping out.
  173. So if we want to do something
    about extreme inequality,

  174. we have to fix our politics.
  175. And if we want to fix our politics,
  176. we have to do something about inequality.
  177. So what do we do?
  178. The wonderful thing about spirals
  179. is that you can interrupt
    at any point in the cycle.
  180. I think our best bet starts
    with those of us

  181. who have benefited the most
    from inequality's rise,
  182. those of us who have done
    better than average.
  183. If you've been successful,
  184. it's natural to chalk up your success
    to your own hard work.
  185. But, like the studies I showed you,
  186. everybody does that,
  187. whether or not it really was
    the hard work that mattered most.
  188. Every successful person I know
  189. can think of times when they worked hard
    and struggled to succeed.
  190. They can also think of times
  191. when they benefited from good luck
    or a helping hand
  192. but that part is harder.
  193. Psychologists Shai Davidai
    and Tom Gilovich
  194. call it the "headwind-tailwind asymmetry."
  195. When you're struggling against headwinds,
  196. those obstacles are all you can see.
  197. It's what you notice and remember.
  198. But when the wind's at your back
    and everything's going your way,
  199. all you notice is yourself
  200. and our own amazing talents.
  201. So we have to stop and think for a minute
  202. to recognize those tailwinds
    helping us along.
  203. It's so easy to see
    what's wrong with people

  204. who disagree with you.
  205. Some of you decided that I was an idiot
    in the first two minutes,
  206. because I said inequality was harmful.
  207. (Laughter)

  208. The hard part is to recognize

  209. that if you were in a different position,
  210. you might see things differently,
  211. just like the subjects in our experiments.
  212. So if you're in the above-average
    group in life --

  213. and if you're watching a TED talk,
    you most likely are --
  214. (Laughter)

  215. then I leave you with this challenge:

  216. the next time you're tempted to dismiss
    someone who disagrees with you
  217. as an idiot,
  218. think about the tailwinds
    that helped you get where you are.
  219. What lucky breaks did you get
  220. that might have turned out differently?
  221. What helping hands are you grateful for?
  222. Recognizing those tailwinds
    gives us the humility we need
  223. to see that disagreeing with us
    doesn't make people idiots.
  224. The real hard work
    is in finding common ground,
  225. because it's the well-off
    who have the power
  226. and the responsibility to change things.
  227. Thank you.

  228. (Applause)