Seeing Inequality — or Not

Can We Do Anything About It?

The rich not only tend to care less than the poor about our growing economic inequality, but also they just don’t see it. According to recent studies, reported in Psychological Science: “Attitudes to redistribution and the economic status quo appear to be subject to (informational) biases in the environment as well as biases in the mind.”

This is a stiff and academic way of saying that the environment itself tends to screen out discordant perceptions about many “anomalies,” including perceptions of the very rich and the very poor. So it is not just that the rich do not want to see economic inequality, according to these studies, they actually can’t see it.

The same goes for the poor, but that matters far less as they have virtually no influence on the public policies that might address the problem. As the authors of the studies put it, these inherent limitations on the perception of differences, “may lead to increasingly dissociated enclaves of political perception and preference.”

It is no surprise, of course, that self-interest leads us to ignore or forget uncomfortable facts. That’s just human nature. Those who have money want to hold onto it, and tend to be unsympathetic if not uncomprehending of arguments against that. And it is also true that we all experience pressures to conform to the beliefs of the groups to which we belong. We depend upon those groups to confirm our identities and support our self-esteem. Rich as well as poor tend to coalesce around those that share their perceptions and ideas. That too is an aspect of human nature. But this is yet another wrinkle.

The authors suggest what seems a virtually hard-wired inability to see some aspects of reality. Their focus in these studies was on economic inequality, but it would be easy to extrapolate their findings to racial or ethnic differences, differences that tend to disappear or lose their significance in the eyes of the beholders, as they become simple, unalterable “facts” about the environment.

The authors don’t say anything about social class, but that is exactly what comes to my mind in reading about these studies. It may be that the cognitive limitations they describe may be the result of class differences among segments of society that exist in “dissociated enclaves.” Or, perhaps, the authors have stumbled upon the psychological mechanism underlying the formation and persistence of social classes.

We tend to think of class as determined by economic factors, and that is true, no doubt. Whether one thinks of social stratifications into low, middle and upper income groups, or into groups that are distinguished by their relationships to the means of production (i.e. salaried workers, managers, professionals, and owners), class differences tend to become ossified, rigid and hard to alter. This theory suggests that, apart from the forces that establish classes and assign members to them, their persistence may be due in part to cognitive factors that exert a steady and controlling influence.

That, in turn, suggests how difficult it would be to dismantle our class system. This may be the perfect example of what the English poet William Blake called “mind forged manacles.”

[My appreciation to Jeff Axelbank who called my attention to these studies.]