- Sean O'Conaill
- United Kingdom
What research has been done on the psychological roots of social inequality?
I've just seen and heard Paul Piff on 'Does money make you mean', and been fascinated by that. As a retired high school teacher of history and current affairs in Northern Ireland I came to the conclusion about 1994 that at the root of our tendency to harm ourselves and others lies something very simple - the instability of our self esteem. Alain deBotton calls this 'status anxiety' - defining that as 'our congenital uncertainty as to our own value'. I am now convinced this problem lies at the root of the tendency of humans in all eras to build pyramids of esteem - even in spite of an ideological 'buying in' to the notion of equality in post-Enlightenment times. This happened both in socialist utopian experiments like the soviet union, and libertarian experiments such as the US. Always our psychological need for others to affirm our value - because we cannot sustain our self-esteem otherwise - tends to defeat our best egalitarian aspirations. And so we set out to accumulate symbols of 'respectability' - even the Forbes rich list can become one of these. Again I wonder what research may have been done to test this or similar hypotheses?
Closing Statement from Sean O'Conaill
My initial hunch - that what Alain de Botton calls 'status anxiety' (uncertainty as to our own value) could be a significant cause of social inequality - has been supported rather than undermined by a skimming of the psychological literature that I have either found myself been referred to by other contributors here. In particular 'social dominance theory' (Sidanius and Pratto) looks promising, especially in combination with research on the reasons people join groups to begin with (e.g Hogg's 'self-uncertainty' construct). The basic human problem seems to me to be an inability to esteem ourselves unless we are esteemed by others. It is this that makes 'all the world a stage' for self-promotion and mimetic desire (an unconscious appropriation of the desires of others). Could this be tested for sufficiency in explaining inequality? Could the interiority of potential 'high flyers' be tracked from pre-college level (measuring e.g. the incentive to belong to dominant groups) through to actual belonging to such groups, comparing that with the 'status anxiety' levels of coevals considered by the socially dominant to be comparative 'losers'. Does extreme status anxiety relate to a deficiency in early parenting affirmation? I wish I was young enough to pursue those questions myself - but I will be interested to see if others take up the challenge of fully explaining inequality, even if their approach is very different.
Many thanks to, especially, Fritzie and Jimmy - and best wishes to all who looked in.