Debunking the 'natural order of things'

Professor Gail Kinman (University of Bedfordshire) reports from a keynote by Professor Kate Pickett at the British Psychological Society's Annual Conference in Harrogate.

The UK has a higher level of income inequality than most developed countries, with around one person in five currently living in poverty. In her passionate and well-received keynote talk, Kate Pickett, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of York, discussed the wide-ranging psychosocial impact of such extreme inequality. This was an overview of many years of research, as brought into the public eye in two books co-written with her husband, Richard Wilkinson – 2009’s The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, and the long-awaited follow-up, The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone's Well-being. 

Pickett argued that the costs of inequality cannot merely be gauged from the rise and fall of overall standards of living; the widening gap between rich and poor has a major impact on the wellbeing and social functioning of individuals who live in that society. She highlighted the importance of providing a rigorous, evidence-based but accessible analysis of the human cost of inequality to communicate these findings: ‘people are far less likely to read books that have equations in them – we were told that for every equation you include, you lose 10,000 readers’. The challenges of writing books on social equality were also acknowledged: ‘The Inner Level took six years to write… so much research is being done and the world keeps on getting more unequal, so it is hard to keep up’.

Ten years of austerity has led to wage stagnation and increased job insecurity for a high proportion of the population, and there have been cuts and widespread changes to the benefits system and public services more generally. The effects of inequality on public health and life expectancy are widely acknowledged, Pickett argued, but its impact on the mental wellbeing and personal relationships of individuals should also be recognised. She also provided evidence that links inequality to lower educational attainment and social mobility, whereby people have fewer opportunities to transcend their social class.

The impact of inequality on children is of particular concern. The amount of time spent in poverty is strongly related to the cognitive development of babies and children. Pickett referred to a UK teacher recently disclosing that around a third of her school’s 350 students would not have breakfast if the school did not provide it. She emphasised the importance of support services such as Sure Start: such schemes can offset some of the effects of poverty and improve children’s educational and psychological performance.

Pickett also referred to the rising incidence of mental health problems, particularly among young people: in one study ’83 per cent of 18 to 24-year olds reported feeling so stressed during the previous year that they were overwhelmed or unable to cope’. Fear, stemming from feelings of low self-worth and self-doubt, is more prevalent in inequal societies and the risk of status anxiety is higher at all income levels. ‘This breeds unhealthy relationships’ – people tend to withdraw from social contact with others, there is less trust, less community involvement and less voting participation. Homicide rates, domestic violence and crime in general are also higher under conditions of inequality, with the number of people imprisoned ‘up to 16 times greater’. The age of criminal responsibility for children is also typically lower in more unequal societies. 

Worryingly, mental health problems are not only more common but also more stigmatised in unequal societies. However, the effects on the ‘inner level’ vary, Pickett argued, with some people ‘going under’ and experiencing low self-esteem and depression, and others seeking to increase their feelings of self-worth. A steep rise in the characteristics that define narcissism in college students in the US, particularly exaggerated over-confidence, was highlighted. People living in more unequal societies are also more likely to use ‘self-soothing’ behaviours, such as comfort eating, problem gambling and excessive drug and alcohol use, with serious implications for their wellbeing over the longer-term. Consumerism is also much higher under conditions of inequality and there is more advertising spend – unsurprisingly, people are more likely to get into debt. As Pickett commented (quoting from the movie Fight Club): ‘we buy things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like’.

Inequality is one of the most pressing issues of our time, and Professors Pickett and Wilkinson are at the forefront of this discussion. Their work goes a long way towards debunking the myth that social inequity is ‘the natural order of things’, ‘the rich are rich because they work harder and are cleverer than the poor’ and ‘we are all just out for ourselves’. Many problems in our increasingly polarised society stem from social inequalities, with widespread costs.  

The good news is that the negative impact of inequality can be reversed with careful planning and more humane public policies – Pickett and Wilkinson are working with the Equality Trust to build a better society and reduce economic inequality. 

- More reports from the Society's Annual Conference will appear on the site in the coming weeks, and in the July edition.

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