The vicious circle of inequality

May 8, 2017, Aarhus University
Researchers from Norway, Denmark, New Zealand and the US have conducted an investigation into the association between societal inequality and instability and psychological motives for group dominance with about 45,000 persons across 27 nations and 30 American states. Credit: Aarhus University

How to distribute resources between different individuals and groups is one of the basic dilemmas of social life. All known surplus-producing societies are organised as social hierarchies where some groups of people have more resources and better opportunities and life conditions than other groups. Some societies, such as the Indian caste-system, are strongly hierarchical, others like the Nordic welfare states less so. Yet, even in Scandinavia some groups - like ethnic Danes or Norwegians - hold higher status than other groups such as immigrants and refugees.

The question is how societal hierarchies stabilise and arise.

The greater societal inequality, the larger motives for dominance

Researchers from Norway (University of Oslo), Denmark (Aarhus University), New Zealand (Victoria Wellington University) and the US (Harvard University) have conducted an investigation into the association between societal inequality and instability and psychological motives for group dominance with about 45,000 persons across 27 nations and 30 American states.

The result is clear: The greater the societal inequality and instability, the more the groups on top of society tend to support a hierarchy between groups, protecting their own privileged status.

"What we see is a self-fulfilling process where greater societal inequality motivates the group at the top to use even violent means to maintain such inequality. This, in turn, may lead to even more inequality and even extremist violence. This results in a vicious circle," says the senior author of the study, Lotte Thomsen, associate professor in psychology, University of Oslo, Norway and in political science at Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University, Denmark.

Even though you are at considerable disadvantage when positioned at the bottom of the hierarchy and denied access to important resources of territory, food, and mates, as a single individual you may nevertheless be better off by staying out of costly dominance conflicts you are bound to lose anyway. As a consequence, more or less stable dominance hierarchies will arise where some have more and some have less than others.

Clear association across 27 countries

The researchers compared the participants' answers to questions about their support for hierarchy versus equality between groups with macro-indicators from the UN, the World Bank and Reporters Without Borders, among others.

"We see a clear association across 27 countries" says first-author Jonas Kunst, who is a postdoctoral fellow in psychology, University of Oslo and in political science, Aarhus University.

The greater the societal inequality is, the greater is the average social dominance orientation (SDO) among members of the dominant group in the country. The social dominance orientation of the population is systematically higher in countries that score worse on macro-indicators for the risk of violent conflicts, absence of good governance (such as corruption and lack of the rule of law), lack of social progress in terms of meeting the basic needs of the population and providing access to health care and education, lack of democracy, lack of a free press, and lack of gender equality.

Violent persecution of immigrants, racism and sexism are among the consequences

In the second part of the study, the researchers again asked more than 4,000 white American citizens across 30 US states whether they support hierarchy or equality between different groups of people. They also asked questions about racism, sexism, and whether respondents would be willing to participate in the ethnic persecution of immigrants.

"This is a pretty extreme and almost right-wing extremist measure. We simply asked people to imagine that the government decides to outlaw immigrant organizations in the future and then asked each participant if they would inform the police of any members of immigrant organizations that they knew of, whether they would participate in hunting down immigrants and in attacks on immigrant headquarters, and whether they would support the use of physical force and execution of immigrant leaders", says Lotte Thomsen.

Again, the researchers found a systematic association with large-scale societal structure. Using the gini-coefficient to measure the degree of and the US Peace index to indicate presence of violence in each state, they found that both predicted the dominance motives among individual participants. That is, white Americans somehow seemed to tune their psychological dominance motives to the degree of economic inequality and violence in the specific US state where they lived.

"This is quite serious, because we know that psychological group dominance motives are related to greater racism, sexism, and willingness to participate in violence against other groups. Our study also demonstrated these associations", says Jonas Kunst.

"The end result may be a vicious circle of inequality and violence. Because economic inequality is increasing in many parts of the world, this is an important cause for concern," says Lotte Thomsen.

Facts:

  • The research will be published in the week commencing 8 May in the research article "Preferences for track and mediate the effects of macro-level social and violence across societies" in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the world's top three scientific journals.
  • The authors behind the research are J. R. Kunst (Oslo Universitety and Aarhus University), R. Fischer (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand), J. Sidanius (Harvard University) and Lotte Thomsen (University of Oslo and Aarhus University).
  • The research was funded by young researcher awards to Lotte Thomsen from the Danish and Norwegian research councils.

Explore further: Charitable giving: How do power and beliefs about equality impact donations?

More information: Jonas R. Kunst el al., "Preferences for group dominance track and mediate the effects of macro-level social inequality and violence across societies," PNAS (2017). www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1616572114

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39 comments

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Drjsa_oba
1 / 5 (8) May 08, 2017
when doing surveys one can only trust the results if one trusts the questions asked. I have seen some surveys that I refused to participate in, because of the way the questions were phrased. They appeared to me, to be aimed at producing a biased result.
Loading questions about immigrant organisations being made illegal and how would the participant react. Many law abiding people would assume the law was passed for a legitimate reason and therefore abide by it. Only in a semi lawless country would one assume that lawmakers would pass unjust laws.
dogbert
1 / 5 (8) May 08, 2017
Drjsa_oba,

The questions were obviously designed and targeted to yield the desired results. Most of these social surveys/studies are designed from the beginning to produce the desired outcome.

In the second part of the study, the researchers again asked more than 4,000 white American citizens across 30 US states whether they support hierarchy or equality between different groups of people. They also asked questions about racism, sexism, and whether respondents would be willing to participate in the ethnic persecution of immigrants.


They did not ask 4000 random Americans, they asked 4000 white Americans. The racism of the study is evident in the focus on a particular racial profile.
Eddorian
5 / 5 (8) May 09, 2017
"They did not ask 4000 random Americans, they asked 4000 white Americans. ..."

True, but irrelevant. The correlation was through state and economics. There was very likely an assumed bias, but it would at best only augmented the effect, since white Americans tend to be the most prosperous subgroup in the US. Note that the first part of the article identifies the same effect in 27 other nations. That would indicate that the effect is true across ethnicity, which is no surprise. The effect they discuss isn't even a new one. The earliest version was a post-WWII attempt to identify the social problems that lead to the rise of Hitler and the death camps. The behaviour is an emergent social property that correlates to hierarchical systems: leaders, churches, governments, irrespective of race. How do you think the wealthy get that way? They can't possibly produce enough product. They take yours instead
Dingbone
May 09, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.6 / 5 (5) May 09, 2017
"violent conflicts, absence of good governance (such as corruption and lack of the rule of law), lack of social progress in terms of meeting the basic needs of the population and providing access to health care and education, lack of democracy, lack of a free press, and lack of gender equality."

-These are all symptoms of overpopulation. Tribalism is natural among humans but when the population exceeds the carrying capacity of the region, groups will necessarily struggle to maintain their wellbeing at the expense of others.

Democracy is a fragile thing. Weimar did not survive because 1) it wasn't meant to and 2) the German population had exceeded their capacity to support themselves.

And so we see the typical need to oust minorities and conquer new lands. Democracy is not suited for these activities. Democracy promises to solve the very problems it creates.

The essence of democracy is group competition. In Weimar there were 30 major political parties.
Cont>
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (7) May 09, 2017
, as a single individual you may nevertheless be better off by staying out of costly dominance conflicts you are bound to lose anyway.

Till that point when you're not a single individual anymore (but the majority of people) and the loss you would incur during a dominance conflict means nothing because you have nothing left to lose.

Seems like a pretty good description of why/when revolutions happen.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (6) May 09, 2017
The only solution to Weimar was to get rid of all parties but one, and this could only be accomplished by force.

Plato wisely put democracy near the bottom of the pile right above despotism. Democracy will naturally decay into despotism because it brings prosperity which causes overgrowth. Corruption and intergroup violence are the inevitable result.

He also suggested in The Republic that the only way to maintain democracy was by control of a shadow govt beyond public scrutiny.
MR166
2.3 / 5 (6) May 09, 2017
What a silly article!!!!!!!

In any major civilization the people in power will do what they must to stay in power. Power is never given up willingly. Be it Communism, Socialism or Capitalism the few rule the many and the only meaningful difference between the systems is the ease at which an outsider can enter the ruling class. Just look at Brexit as an example. The people in power are having fits over this threat to their dominance.
MR166
2.5 / 5 (8) May 09, 2017
Inequality is a basic fact of nature. Why does the dominant buck get the most doe's, because that is the way that nature intended. As a person that has been both self-employed and an employee I know how hard it is to keep a business healthy and employees paid. Thus, I have no real problem understanding the basis of inequality. If I find gold on my property and become richer than you is that unfair? If the person on a slot machine next to me hits the jackpot is that unfair? Here in the US people are harmed more by their own culture and poor parental examples than any sort of racial privilege.
MR166
2 / 5 (4) May 09, 2017
The real fact that everyone fails to understand is that regardless of race or color one needs to associate with successful people in order to become successful. They are the only people who can help you with the proper advice. It is almost impossible to invent the wheel on your own.
SkyLy
5 / 5 (5) May 09, 2017
@MR166 : Wealth and social circle is a lot predicted by your birth setup, just check out Forbes' rankings. The American dream is just a lullaby sang to numb the ambition of the poorest.
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (6) May 09, 2017
FTA;
"The result is clear: The greater the societal inequality and instability, the more the groups on top of society tend to support a hierarchy between groups, protecting their own privileged status."

This just describes a survival mechanism, sometimes (incorrectly) called "human nature"...
MR166
1.8 / 5 (5) May 09, 2017
"@MR166 : Wealth and social circle is a lot predicted by your birth setup, just check out Forbes' rankings. The American dream is just a lullaby sang to numb the ambition of the poorest."

That is what the progressive victim centric movement wants you to believe!

Many immigrants come to the US, start their own business and become very wealthy. They have a close knit culture where the first successful wave funds the ventures of the following waves. No government needed, Thank You Very Much. Just take for instance the the stereotype of new Asian immigrants. They start with nothing, work 24/7 and damn well make sure that their kids get straight A's in school and get accepted to good colleges.
MR166
3 / 5 (4) May 09, 2017
As far as the children of the wealthy are concerned, yes they have a huge advantage in that success as well as failure can be handed down from generation to generation.
MR166
2 / 5 (4) May 09, 2017
Here in the North East US many Latinos own their own businesses and are among the middle class or better. Government programs have created more poverty and wealth inequality than all of the bias in the world, just proving that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
MR166
2.3 / 5 (3) May 09, 2017
I grew up in NYC and personally watched whole sections of the city turn into a high crime ghetto due to rent control. Millions of apartments were affected. Many buildings were abandoned. The allowed rents were not high enough to pay for the upkeep. Pandering to the crowd is not always in their best interest.
gkam
3 / 5 (6) May 09, 2017
But pandering to the rich and powerful has gotten us to the dismal state of our society and the vast disparity in opportunity.

We simply must re-institute the taxes on the rich, if we are to reclaim Democracy.
MR166
2 / 5 (4) May 09, 2017
The top 20% of the earners pay 84% of the income taxes. Where exactly is the injustice?
MR166
1.8 / 5 (5) May 09, 2017
Only about 50% pay any taxes at all. The bottom 20% receive funds from the federal government. I don't know if that includes SS benefits.
MR166
2.6 / 5 (5) May 09, 2017
Another interesting stat would be the number jobs that were produced by the 20%
MR166
2.6 / 5 (5) May 09, 2017
Just as an example, I had an uncle that died a multi-millionaire. He started life with no money and no connections. I don't think that he went to college. He worked for service company and in a few years went out on his own. He was on call 24/7. Until the day he died he lived an extremely modest life and put every extra penny into better equipment for the business. He was a classic US success story.
MR166
2.3 / 5 (6) May 09, 2017
The exact opposite of this is many million dollar lottery winners. Due to their culture, upbringing, friends and surroundings they never learned how to handle wealth and soon it was all gone.
gkam
1.8 / 5 (5) May 09, 2017
Do we REALLY have to endure these right-wing musings?
Zzzzzzzz
3.7 / 5 (3) May 09, 2017
Only humans would be blind enough to have to study and study to discover what was patently obvious all along.
MR166
3.4 / 5 (5) May 09, 2017
"Do we REALLY have to endure these right-wing musings?"

Pretty much, yes. You could put me on ignore but then Otto and I are the only people who reply to your biased posts.
SlartiBartfast
5 / 5 (6) May 09, 2017
The top 20% of the earners pay 84% of the income taxes. Where exactly is the injustice?


So? And how much income is earned by that top 20%? Think before you post.
Whydening Gyre
4.2 / 5 (5) May 09, 2017
The top 20% of the earners pay 84% of the income taxes. Where exactly is the injustice?


So? And how much income is earned by that top 20%? Think before you post.

Maybe - 84-85%?
Whydening Gyre
4.2 / 5 (5) May 09, 2017
But pandering to the rich and powerful has gotten us to the dismal state of our society and the vast disparity in opportunity.

Notice that the rich n powerful are (on average) middle to late age and white....
We simply must re-institute the taxes on the rich, if we are to reclaim Democracy.

There goes sloganeer George... waving his flag as marches down his suburban street...
And they will STILL earn more than the rest of us...
I say, reinstitute stricter controls on banking...
And... Realistically, Democracy was never ours to claim in the first place. We need a democratically managed REPUBLIC.
MR166
3 / 5 (4) May 09, 2017
WG you really hit the nail on the head when you asked for controls on banking. But it wont happen in a meaningful way because they are the puppet masters and the politicians are the puppets. In the mean time we do make a great audience. Our colleges should be giving out PHDs in audience participation since they did the most to create the system.
Whydening Gyre
4 / 5 (4) May 10, 2017
WG you really hit the nail on the head when you asked for controls on banking. But it wont happen in a meaningful way because they are the puppet masters and the politicians are the puppets. In the mean time we do make a great audience. Our colleges should be giving out PHDs in audience participation since they did the most to create the system.

There are no "puppets" and "puppet-masters". They are co-conspirators...
The rest of us being the audience?
Reluctantly... Cuz we're constantly being "baffled by someone else's bullshit".
MR166
2.3 / 5 (3) May 10, 2017
It never fails to amaze me that the average progressive/liberal thinks that big banking is controlled almost exclusively by the right. They look upon people like Soros, Buffet and Gates etc as champions of the little person when they are really pulling the strings.
gkam
2 / 5 (4) May 10, 2017
"Notice that the rich n powerful are (on average) middle to late age and white...."
-------------------------------------

So what?

It has nothing to do with my comment.

Whydening Gyre
4.2 / 5 (5) May 10, 2017
"Notice that the rich n powerful are (on average) middle to late age and white...."
-------------------------------------

So what?

It has nothing to do with my comment.

Yes, it does. It's who you identify with the most, at an instinctual level.

gkam
2 / 5 (4) May 10, 2017
Oh, well, I am glad you are so damn smart you have to hide behind a phony name.
Estevan57
3 / 5 (6) May 10, 2017
What's that Johnny Cash song, a boy named gkam?

Who would want YOU knowing their address and phone number, gkam?

Not exactly friendly, he is - Yoda
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (6) May 10, 2017
Oh, well, I am glad you are so damn smart you have to hide behind a phony name.
And I for one am glad you are so damn stupid that you share yours along with your address, phone #, family names, alleged work history, and SSN on the internet.

As if it would somehow allow you to lie and cheat without being caught.

Hell, who would believe anything someone that stupid would have to say anyway?
Whydening Gyre
3.7 / 5 (6) May 10, 2017
Oh, well, I am glad you are so damn smart you have to hide behind a phony name.

Was that it for a retort, George?
To the fact that many in America (and Europe) identify with being white and middle aged?
Who grumble and point fingers about the (other, white, middle-aged) rich guys screwing them, because they weren't smart enough to gain sufficient wealth to make them happy in their own lifetime?

And Gyre IS my name. (although maybe not spelled exactly that way).

Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (3) May 10, 2017
It never fails to amaze me that the average progressive/liberal thinks that big banking is controlled almost exclusively by the right. They look upon people like Soros, Buffet and Gates etc as champions of the little person when they are really pulling the strings.

MR,
Money fuels the "machine" pulling the strings. The republican/democrat show is just to keep the rest of us entertained.
The big question is - do you have enough to survive? (in the manner to which you've grown accustomed...)
gkam
1 / 5 (3) May 22, 2017
"Was that it for a retort, George?"

Yeah, that was it, W.

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