Friday, February 14, 2014

The social (and medical) pathology of correlating inner worth with wealth.

A recent piece by Wilkinson and Pickett in the NYTimes deserves notice. They comment on how wealth inequality is not only divisive and socially corrosive, but also damaging to individuals' mental health. They cite their work showing that:
...major and minor mental illnesses were three times as common in societies where there were bigger income differences between rich and poor. In other words, an American is likely to know three times as many people with depression or anxiety problems as someone in Japan or Germany.
Another study
...looking at the 50 American states, discovered that after taking account of age, income and educational differences, depression was more common in states with greater income inequality. Another, which combined data from over 100 surveys in 26 countries, found that schizophrenia was about three times as common in more unequal societies as it was in more equal ones.
Other clips:
...a wide range of mental disorders might originate in a “dominance behavioral system.” This part of our evolved psychological makeup, almost universal in mammals, enables us to recognize and respond to social ranking systems based on hierarchy and power...One of the important effects of wider income differences between rich and poor is to intensify the issues of dominance and subordination, and feelings of superiority and inferiority.
Humans instinctively know how to cooperate and create social ties, but we also know how to engage in status competition — how to be snobs and how to talk ourselves up. We use these alternative social strategies almost every day of our lives, but crucially, inequality shifts the balance between them...It is hard to avoid the conclusion that we become less nice people in more unequal societies. But we are less nice and less happy: Greater inequality redoubles status anxiety, damaging our mental health and distorting our personalities — wherever we are on the social spectrum.
The article doesn't mention the physical effects that are another major consequence of inequality. Feeling inferior correlates with feeling more helpless than powerful, and hundreds of studies have shown that feelings of helplessness lead to increased disease, lowered immune function, increased anxiety, etc. (enter 'helplessness' in the search box in the left column to see Mindblog posts on this topic.)

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