Monday, November 7, 2011

Does Inequality Make Us Unhappy? - By Jonah Lehrer

Found via Simoleon Sense.

Inequality is inevitable; life is a bell curve. Such are the brute facts of biology, which can only evolve because some living things are better at reproducing than others. But not all inequality is created equal. In recent years, it’s become clear that many kinds of wealth disparity are perfectly acceptable — capitalism could not exist otherwise — while alternate forms make us unhappy and angry.

The bad news is that American society seems to be developing the wrong kind of inequality.


A similar lesson emerges from a classic experiment conducted by Franz de Waals and Sarah Brosnan. The primatologists trained brown capuchin monkeys to give them pebbles in exchange for cucumbers. Almost overnight, a capuchin economy developed, with hungry monkeys harvesting small stones. But the marketplace was disrupted when the scientists got mischievous: instead of giving every monkey a cucumber in exchange for pebbles, they started giving some monkeys a tasty grape instead. (Monkeys prefer grapes to cucumbers.) After witnessing this injustice, the monkeys earning cucumbers went on strike. Some started throwing their cucumbers at the scientists; the vast majority just stopped collecting pebbles. The capuchin economy ground to a halt. The monkeys were willing to forfeit cheap food simply to register their anger at the arbitrary pay scale.

This labor unrest among monkeys illuminates our innate sense of fairness. It’s not that the primates demanded equality — some capuchins collected many more pebbles than others, and that never created a problem — it’s that they couldn’t stand when the inequality was a result of injustice. Humans act the same way. When the rich do something to deserve their riches, nobody complains; that’s just the meritocracy at work. But when those at the bottom don’t understand the unequal distribution of wealth — when it seems as if the winners are getting rewarded for no reason — they get furious. They doubt the integrity of the system and become more sensitive to perceived inequities. They start camping out in parks. They reject the very premise of the game.


Related previous posts:

Fault Lines: The Top 1%

TED Talk - Richard Wilkinson: How economic inequality harms societies

Capital versus Talent: Discussion between Malcolm Gladwell and Roger Martin

How Inequality Fueled the Crisis - By Raghuram Rajan

Amy Chua: World on Fire

Sort of related post that was one of the more interesting things I’ve read in quite a while:

A Natural History of Peace - By Robert M. Sapolsky