Inequality: Our brains don’t like it

So says a recent study.

the team found that the reward centers in the human brain respond more strongly when a poor person receives a financial reward than when a rich person does. The surprising thing? This activity pattern holds true even if the brain being looked at is in the rich person’s head, rather than the poor person’s…
“In the experiment, people who started out rich had a stronger reaction to other people getting money than to themselves getting money,” Camerer explains. “In other words, their brains liked it when others got money more than they liked it when they themselves got money.”

I find myself wondering: if this is right, why is it that societies in fact work out the way that they do? There are clearly a huge range of factors that play out in the real world which aren’t present in the experimental setting. Does anyone out there know more about this research?

9 thoughts on “Inequality: Our brains don’t like it

  1. I find this result both aligning with some of my intuitions, but also butting heads with others. Since I do not have any further substantial comment to make, I will simply say, psychology makes my head hurt.

  2. It wasn’t entirely clear from the article, but it seemed as though the study participants were a. arbitrarily given money or not at the beginning, and then b. during, just given rewards (as opposed to possibly divvying up money that they were already entitled to or expecting)… I think that makes a big difference in the perspective of the participants.

    If those who are rich perceive the poor as having less because they work less, or perceive themselves as having more because they work harder, I can see how this preference for equality wouldn’t carry over. Most people who have more, I don’t think, deeply contemplate all the unearned economic advantages that they might have (e.g., if their parents were well off, did they go to a better school, or live in an area that had more educational resources, were they seen as more capable by their teachers and hence given more personal attention, did they get a job through connections and not solely on merit, did they inherit economic resources, did they benefit in the job market from implicit bias, etc.). When we think that we have what we have because we “earned it” then the converse is that others don’t because they didn’t.

  3. It’s a strange thing but true that when I got my postgraduate scholarship, the second thing I decided to do, besides making sure that I was no longer wearing rags, was to give a lot of my spare cash away. Now, I have heard that the conventional reason why those better off give to those worse off is because of guilt, but I examined my motivations back and forth, and this was not the reason for my kindness. The main reason was actually intra-subjective — which is to say I felt a subjective imbalance between how I had been forced to live whilst I was very poor, in relation to the relative wealth I now had. I had a strong desire, therefore, to facilitate retro-active healing of my poorer self. The only way that I could see to do that was to give some of the money away to somebody who represented me in my poorer state. Clearly this did not make rational sense, but whenever I run the matter through my mind, as to whether I may have lacked in judgement, I get the very strange conviction that what I did was absolutely right.

  4. Of course this has everything to do with “self interest” (contra to the article) if self interest is about human relationships rather than money making. Who wants to deal with others as abstractions? The more equal they are to you in material terms, the more you can relate to them as actual human beings, rather than remote “things”. This is because anybody struggling for money will be somewhat “thingified” by the huge emphasis they need to place upon material existence — things at the very bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If more people have a greater wealth, they also have a buffer between themselves and the pressing material concerns. Voila! They become more human, more companiable.

    And having more, rather than fewer fully fledged human beings to relate to is actually beneficial to our own survival. It improves the subjective sense of our well being, by giving us someone we can talk to, and it enables such things as cultural enrichment, a wider experience of psychological diversity, and so on.

    So care and concern for one’s fellow human beings is directly linked to our survival instinct.

  5. I do know a reasonable amount about this research, and if I can get to a computer, I’ll try to say a bit more. It is hard to write a lot on a phone. I take a lot of to be trying to uncover basic motivational structures by looking at choices in contexts that are in effect abstract. There have been some remarkable successes. Some in this very extended research group has been Read Montague; you might look him up – I heard he’s in the latest Time.

  6. I should say that I think assessing the work as a feminist is complex & should vary with the context and claims. On the one hand, it can look like studies of ‘beauty’ that are based on showing pics. Bad! One the other hand, it is trying to discover what in the brain shapes our remarkable sociability. That sounds better, I think

  7. It’s possible that while their reaction to poor people getting money is positive, their reaction to having to give up money themselves is very negative.

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