Sean O'Conaill

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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.

Sean O'Conaill

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    Jan 14 2014: "Why People Join Groups: Three Motivational Accounts from Social Psychology." by Hogg, Hohman and Rivera (2008) can be obtained very reasonably through the Wiley Online Library, at:

    Though lucid and fascinating it is also very allusive to other related literature, and sometimes uses terms that describe groups (e.g. 'entitavity') without illustrating the meanings of these with concrete examples. It is therefore more of a beckoning to read further (especially, for me, in Hoggs other expositions of 'self-uncertainty') than a final destination.

    Because he is himself a major mover in self-uncertainty theory one also has to take cautiously Hogg's conclusion that self-uncertainty may be a more thorough explainer of why people choose to belong to groups than the other two models he reviews here - terror management theory and the sociometer model.

    I was also intrigued by his brief account of 'self-uncertainty' as having 'to do with reducing feelings of uncertainty about ourselves and the world we live in'. That range of uncertainty is very wide, whereas Alain deBotton's 'status anxiety' is 'congenital uncertainty as to our own value'. Do Hogg et al ever advert to that much narrower zone of uncertainty? Another reason for trying to find time to read their other work.

    So is the attention paid to the relationship between group membership and self-esteem in sociometer theory. This too I would like to know more about - since 'self-esteem uncertainty' is surely close to 'congenital uncertainty as to our own value'.

    My curiosity is far from satisfied by this article, therefore, but I am much further forward, and more refined in my questioning - so many thanks again to Fritzie for flagging it for me. My view of what the relevant literature may be on this question is greatly enriched.
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    Jan 12 2014: Here is another lead. Michael Hogg, a professor of social psychology at Clarement, wrote in 2008 an article called "Why People Join Groups: Three Motivational Accounts from Social Psychology." He has since done experimental work on this question.

    I do not know how to access a free version online (though the abstract is easy to find online), but if you go to his website, you will likely find pathways to his work.
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      Jan 13 2014: Great! Many thanks, Fritzie - I'll certainly 'go there'! One question I have already is how does Michael Hogg define a 'group'? Another is how did the researchers for SDT and SDO define a 'group'? And, of course, do these definitions match?
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        Jan 13 2014: For these you need to go to the studies. Competent scholarly work, empirical or theoretical, will define its terms.

        In empirical work there is a concept you may have heard of called "external validity." While internal validity refers to whether the study was built in a way that allows its conclusions to be drawn for subjects like it studied in the setting of the study, external validity refers to how far one can extrapolate the results to groups or situations outside the specific boundaries of the study. For example, many studies use as subjects young university students. A study that used only young university students will typically contain a caveat- or should- that the results cannot necessarily be extrapolated to broader population groups.
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          Jan 13 2014: Very helpful and instructive - thanks again!
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      Jan 13 2014: Here is the abstract for that Hogg article: "Why People Join Groups: Three Motivational Accounts from Social Psychology."

      "This paper describes and contrasts three contemporary social psychological theories that focus on why people join and identify with groups: the sociometer model, terror management theory, and uncertainty–identity theory. The sociometer model argues that people have a need to be socially included, and that self-esteem is a meter of successful inclusion and group belonging. Terror management theory argues that people are motivated to reduce fear of the inevitability of their own death, and that the consensual belief–confirmation provided by groups drives people to belong. Uncertainty–identity theory argues that people have a basic need to reduce uncertainty about themselves, their attributes, and their place in the world, and that cognitive processes associated with group identification reduce such uncertainty. We critically contrast these three accounts to conclude that all three motivational processes may play a role, but that self-uncertainty may have the benefit of wide generality to all groups and group contexts and of detailed specification of cognitive processes."

      Now to get the PDF of the complete article. 'Self-uncertainty' as briefly described here sounds to me very like 'status anxiety' as defined by Alain deBotton.

      Very many thanks again Fritzie. I'll be reading that very carefully indeed!
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        Jan 13 2014: I had read the abstract before recommending it to you. I will read with interest when you report back.

        Self-uncertainty may be a broader term than what is normally associated with status anxiety. The self uncertainty question may be "Who am I?" without a need to be better than someone else, as the concept of status suggests.

        Many people may enjoy being different more than being better. The question of inequality to me suggests a scale of better or worse along some dimension, whereas self-identity may simply be about difference with no value hierarchy associated with differences.
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    Jan 12 2014: I am not sure that my searching of Psych Abstracts has retrieved everything really relevant, as I tend to get far too many hits to be sure I can scan exhaustively.

    However 'Social Dominance Theory' turned up - and turned out to be an interesting account of how the dominance of some social groups is maintained.

    However, to me it doesn't fully explain the formation and maintenance of groups to begin with - the forces acting on and through individuals that lead them to join, cling to, and promote the dominance of the chosen group.

    As to the 'Social Dominance Orientation' (SDO) scale, that too is fascinating as a predictor of membership of dominant or non-dominant groups. (Members of dominant groups tend to believe, for example, that: ' Some groups of people are simply inferior to other groups.' Members of non-dominant groups are more likely to believe that 'Group equality should be our ideal'.)

    In relation to SDO, Wikipedia tells us that: " Duckitt has suggested a model of attitude development for SDO, suggesting that unaffectionate socialisation in childhood causes a tough-minded attitude. According to Duckitt's model, people high in tough-minded personality are predisposed to view the world as a competitive place in which resource competition is zero-sum."

    Doesn't 'unaffectionate socialisation in childhood' suggest also fragile / needy self-esteem and the desirability of dominant group membership to enhance and reinforce self-esteem? Would a fragile / needy self-esteem scale help to predict a desire for membership of dominant groups on the part of someone who didn't yet belong? And would membership of a dominant group correlate with recovered self-esteem? ("I deserve to be where I am. Those who belong to non-dominant groups tend to be losers.")
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      Jan 12 2014: SDT and SDO were really interesting (I read the Wiki's)! I'll ponder them for a bit and get back to you.
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    Jan 5 2014: Very interesting question. I think it's sensible, though, to eliminate external influences before looking for internal ones. We are incredibly susceptible to context, framing, peer pressure, etc. – Piff related towards the end of his talk how compassion was rekindled in one study by showing a very short video. I would guess that the über-rich live more or less permanently in a frame / context / peer situation far removed from what the rest of us experience, and that they behave accordingly. Given the power of context, it's probably unnecessary to posit a lack of self-esteem or a need to 'fill the void' or anything like that – and it's possibly untestable and, I would guess, usually untrue.

    With respect to context / framing, I'm often struck by how information at the intersection of society and commerce is presented. A large number of media articles relating to welfare benefits, for example, start with an image. Often it's an image of a stack of money, or of people queuing for the dole; it wouldn't be that hard to offer an image of positive effects of welfare payments, thus creating a different frame for the article.

    If you haven't read it already, you'll find a wealth of research on context and framing in Daniel Kahneman's brilliant book, 'Thinking, Fast and Slow'. And there's a vast amount of research on our attitudes towards members of our own group – we're normally positive towards them – versus towards others, whom we tend to care less about. Given that the poor form a much larger group than the rich, it's logical that the poor – thinking purely in terms of in-groups and out-groups – would have a greater sense of community than the rich.

    A few of the issues above intersect in Dan Ariely's 'Our buggy moral code' TED talk from a while back;
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      Jan 5 2014: Thanks, for this, Peter. I need to read your contribution again to make sure I do it full justice. Straight off, I am certain that our context and our emotional response are intimately related - but there is a wealth of evidence to the effect that the wider context itself is changing in the direction of greater social inequality and I cannot see how limitless individual accumulation and the motives behind that could be disconnected from this tendency. However, I will explore the avenues you point to before commenting further. One last thought for now: what exactly do we mean by 'peer pressure', and why are we all so vulnerable to it?
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      Jan 12 2014: I haven't stopped thinking about 'context' and its impact on the individual - and the fact that we ourselves are always part of the 'context' of others in our space. Also the power we have to become destabilisers of the self-esteem of others. Here's an example: In 'Great Expectations' forge-raised Pip meets the proud and beautiful Estella. She calls his hands coarse. Pip reflects: 'Her contempt for me was so strong that it became infectious, and I caught it'.
      Isn't this a classic example of how 'context' can destabilise our self-esteem and cause us to dream of being very different - in Pip's case a 'gentleman' who can deserve Estella's respect? What future aristocracy is now dreaming of being different, undeserving of the contempt that is too often the stock-in-trade of the modern daily 'context' - especially on the Internet?
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    Jan 1 2014: Thanks, Jimmy. I suppose that to begin with I would be pleased to get abstracts of those papers. That video material would be interesting also, if it could be shared without too much trouble to yourself.

    I'll look soon at the de Botton talks on TED - many thanks for sharing this. I will be fascinated to hear of your own work.
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      Jan 1 2014: You are welcome Sean, I always take the time to go find and share things that I believe will be of use for people, as is the case here. Since I'm very proficient at finding information on the web, this is something that I gladly do for others.

      Firstly Concerning Paul Piff's work I was able to find 15 publications, all of them seem to have very good material.!publications/c240r

      Alain de Bottom does not seem to have done any hard science, but he has written many books (which I have not read). If you visit you can get a grasp of the different documentaries and books that he's made.

      Also Sean, to make it easier to keep track of the ongoing conversations here it's better if you use the "reply" option to create threads of comments. There's a little red reply text located about 10cm to the right from my name in this post for example, if you press it and put your response in the box that comes up it will look much better. :)
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        Jan 1 2014: Ah! That's so helpful, Jimmy. You are kind! You provide much to follow up also - and that will certainly keep me busy for a while.

        As it happens I have been able to make contact with Paul Piff also - and to discover that he is also interested in the possible connection between status anxiety and social inequality. Following up the link you give me to his work will help me further, and obviate my annoying him further with importunate questions.
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      Jan 1 2014: Oh and I haven't done any "work" myself, perhaps I should but I've found that what the world needs is people that provide work by others, for others. So that is what I do most days...

      So I won't be able to share any of my own work with you...
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        Jan 1 2014: Aren't there different kinds of useful 'work', Jimmy? I have certainly found the 'publications' page for Paul Piff that you sent me very useful. Even the variety of journals in his field is fascinating to me. I would call your 'work' just as indispensable as his!
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    Dec 31 2013: No, Fritzie! Stupidly I launched this question without that thought occurring to me - probably because I am not a psychologist or accustomed to doing that kind of search. I suppose that, lazily, I was hoping that someone else more skilled at that, and maybe with a similar interest, would 'cut to the chase' for me. Also, having noticed that this question has become acutely topical, I wondered if others might be on the same tack. Thanks for the suggestion in any case. Why shouldn't I do that?
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      Jan 1 2014: Sean,

      I'm on the completely same track as you seem to be! I really welcome someone mentioning both Paul Piff and Alain de Bottom and his Social Anxiety documentary here on TED!

      Also did you know that Alain de Bottom has had two TED talks?

      When you say research, does that mean that you're looking for the actual papers, which are often several hundred pages, or would you rather I share some more video material with you?
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      Jan 1 2014: Try the website for the American Psychological Association. The first abstract index listed there is:

      You will find references to scholarly research there. You may need to do this from a college library, as they would have a subscription.
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    Dec 31 2013: Have you done a search in Psych Abstracts?
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      Jan 1 2014: Is that ''? A brief search there brings up no major heading 'origins of social inequality'. (For some reason the search of the social psychology network from there causes a web page error.)

      The pattern I have found so far of what's easily available on this question is one of long-lens lament over post-agriculture social inequality. This pattern seems to begin with Rousseau's 18th c. discourse on inequality, in which he dualises us humans into (on the one hand) natural, uncorrupted man living in small basically egalitarian hunting communities, and (on the other) post-agrarian fence-making acquisitive civilised but corrupted man - disposed of course to privilege and inequality.

      This dualistic / historical narrative is remarkably reflected in a 2012 article by Agustin Fuentes in Psychology Today? 'Is Inequality Natural' . Again he takes the view that what inequality existed in hunter-gatherer society was strictly limited by the need for co-operation - and that the problem with contemporary society is that this latter need has been less visible to too many of those who have accumulated an unfair, socially endangering, share of resources.

      This is all fascinating of course - but again Fuentes' brush is far too broad to elucidate the internal psychology of what might be called 'unrestrained appropriation without empathy'. He references no psychological body of knowledge on the phenomenon we tend to call 'greed' in a rather dualistic way. (That is 'greed' is an accusatory word implying an a priori assumption that some people are greedy and others aren't. This is obviously self-exonerating, presumptuous and unscientific.)

      In Ireland we have the expression 'losing the run of oneself' in explanation of what happened to those bankers and property developers who took us to the bubble and crash in 2007. It is the internal psychology of 'losing the run of oneself'' that especially interests me.