What Inequality Does to Your Brain

The "Occupy" movement, as confused as it might seem, is clear about one thing. It wants to ask the modern world some uncomfortable questions.
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The "Occupy" movement, as confused as it might seem, is clear about one thing. It wants to ask the modern world some uncomfortable questions. Contrary to media portrayal, the questions are not small ones like whether drum circles should be required in schools, or what brand of politician should be in charge. The questions are deeper here. Like, should we let equality continue to worsen in our societies?

Two canny researchers, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, have been looking for answers in the data. They worked out a way of measuring the level of equality of a particular country or a state, defining equality as the difference in resources between people at the top of the social status and those at the bottom, within that region. By creating a metric for equality, they were able to compare different countries and states that had similar incomes but varied in equality, and compare this data to other important social metrics.

The correlations are terrifying in their clarity and consistency. To put it simply, the more unequal a society, the worse off most of its citizens were. This didn't just play out on one or two metrics. When compared with more equal societies with similar incomes, more unequal societies had worse infant mortality, worse educational scores, higher teen pregnancies, more children dropping out of high school, more drug abuse, more homicides, more mental illness, more people in prison, greater obesity, more health problems overall and shorter lives. And societies that were more equal showed higher innovation, greater use of environmental resources, and get this one, greater social mobility. If you are like me, you might want to read this a few times over, and if you want to dive into the research feel free to do so in their book.

Before you brand me (or the researchers behind the data) as socialists or worse, hear me out. I am not plugging for higher taxes, communism or all moving into a kibbutz. I just wonder if some of our assumptions about how to run a healthy society may be wrong, and we may need to use the opportunity of financial turmoil to make some changes. These changes are subtle, they are in our thinking, in what we value. Perhaps we need to value greater equality as a good thing, not as a reduction in freedom. Healthier societies are better for everyone, not just those at the bottom.

The wider data is clear. More unequal societies are bad for you. What's missing now is a biological explanation at a more granular level. Well, it turns out there is one here too.

The biology of inequality

The organizing principle of the brain is to minimize danger and maximize reward. According to Neuroscientist Evian Gordon's Integrate model, five times each second the brain non-consciously determines what is dangerous and steers away from it, and what is potentially rewarding and orients toward that. The danger response is the far stronger of the two. It turns out that social situations activate this primary threat and reward response more intensely than anyone had realized. We feel strongest about social situations. Social threats, like feeling lonely, turn out to have a similar "danger" response as being hungry or in pain. All three create a sense of panic and a need to take evasive action.

There are five social situations that are of particular importance to the brain. These are status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. A perceived drop in any of these domains activates a sense of danger, and we automatically then try to mitigate that danger somehow. (For more on this see my paper on the SCARF model).

Guess how easy it is to activate a threat response around issues like status and fairness? Very. Just watch small children for a few minutes, or executives at a meeting telling each other their ideas are wrong. A relative drop in status has an impact, a very real one.

The bottom line is that increasing status and fairness gaps in society are creating daily danger responses for vast numbers of people. While those at the top feel pretty good, the rest feel very bad (remember that "bad" is stronger than "good"). To mitigate this feeling, we eat more, drink more, do more foolish things and die younger. Some of these issues are easy to understand through the lens of the debilitating effect of increased cortisol that occurs under threat, which reduces immune function, damages tissues and even inhibits memory formation. An increased threat response also reduces creativity, our ability to control impulses and even our overall ability to process new information.

In the brain, we non-consciously notice subtle changes in our environment, and these changes form expectations of future changes. Expectations drive threat or reward responses in a big way. The expectation of life getting better and better is a feeling we call "happiness" and links to increased levels of dopamine and improved health outcomes. The expectation of pain getting worse creates quite the threat response, literally shortening our lives, and it turns out the health of our society. Watching the top earners pull away more and more has created an unhappy and stressed-out generation.

Upgrading to a new model

The answer is probably not to bring back the welfare state. Spain, Greece and Italy have fabulous food, but are not exactly fiscally attractive.

I wonder if the answer is we need a more balanced form of capitalism. The kind that is practiced in a number of prosperous places, like Finland, Switzerland and dare I say it, even Sweden. These countries are not perfect (none is it seems), but their education, health care and financial systems are in dramatically better shape than the U.S. It turns out their quality of life is off the charts too.

I believe that organizations need to lead the way and be role models of this change. How do we make organizations more "fair"? To begin with, do people really need to earn 300 times more than others on the floor below them, for similar work? The answer most likely is "no." The other problem with out-of-control compensation is that rewards are only rewarding when they feel bigger than those that came before (or via status, bigger than your peers). We've seen how well that experiment has played out in the financial services sector. Which brings us right back to the occupiers.

While this equality question might seem indulgent to most, an increasing percentage of the world, particularly the hundreds of millions with unexpected time suddenly on their hands, are beginning to find their minds occupied by this very thought. I wonder what they will do next summer if things get any worse.

As one person said recently, perhaps its time we put a "statue of community" on the opposite side of the bay to the "statue of liberty." We may have taken the pursuit of individual success just a teeny bit far, at the expense of perhaps all too much.