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An Unexpected Cost of Income Inequality: Self-Deception

Posted by Josh Rothman  February 1, 2012 04:38 PM

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There are lots of obvious reasons to be against extreme income inequality, but here's a new one: It encourages self-deception. A team of nineteen psychologists, led by Steve Loughman and Peter Kuppens, have crunched numbers from around the world, and their paper, "Economic Inequality Is Linked to Biased Self-Perception," published recently in Psychological Science, suggests that "the extent to which people engage in biased self-perception is influenced by the economic structure of their society, specifically its level of economic inequality."


"Mirror, mirror on the wall" (from the Grimm's Kinder- und Hausmärchen, 1857).

Psychologists have long known that people everywhere tend to over-estimate their own good qualities. (The technical term is "biased self-perception.") It's also well-known that citizens of different countries tend, on average, to be biased in their own favor to different degrees. In Japan, for example, people tend to see themselves as average, while here in the U.S., we have a tendency to see ourselves as smarter, nicer, more popular, and more attractive than we really are. (Thus the famous statistic that 80% of us belive we are above-average drivers.) For a long time now, the authors write, the main explanation for this divergence has been cultural: In an individualistic society like ours, the thinking goes, the drive to be unique and independent leads, inevitably, to "self-enhancement." On the other side, they explain, it's often argued that "Easterners [are] more likely to be collectivists seeking interpersonal harmony and belonging."

The numbers in this study, however, suggest a different explanation. The researchers gathered survey data about self-regard from 1,625 people in 15 countries. Participants in the survey were asked to rate themselves on a range of traits, as well as to rate the importance of each trait to other people. (If you rate yourself as being funnier than most people you know, and then explain that funniness is an especially important trait in your society, then you are scoring both a touchdown and a field goal when it comes to "self-enhancement.") When they compared that data to other factors about those countries as a whole -- including values like individualism and collectivism -- they found that only one factor correlated with the degree of bias: economic inequality. In fairly equal societies, such as Japan, Germany, and Korea, people had relatively little self-enhancing bias, while in very unequal societies, like Peru and South Africa, self-enhancing bias was rampant. The United States is roughly in the middle.

Why might this be? The authors think it's mostly about competition: "In unequal societies, individuals are strongly motivated to stand out as superior to others," they write, and "[on]e expression of this desire may be to engage in stronger self-enhancement. When benefits and costs are polarized by inequality, people may compete for social superiority." By contrast, "[i]n societies with more economic equality, the benefits of superiority diminish, and people’s tendency to see themselves as above average" seems to shrink, too. By way of corroboration, they point to a 2003 study in Japan, in which participants were asked to play competitive, zero-sum economic games with one another. One result of that competitive pressure was that the players came to hold themselves in higher regard.

The study is far from conclusive; one of its weaknesses is that most of its subjects are college students. College students in more unequal countries, the authors point out, are probably less average than college students in more equal countries. Future studies will have to draw on data taken from a wider swath of the population. Even so, the study suggests, in an evocative way, the degree to which economic inequality is about more than dollars. The thought that "aspects of macro-level socioeconomic organization may be reflected in microlevel self-perception" is striking, and sobering.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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