Researchers highlight the vicious circle of inequality

Social and economic inequality creates a vicious circle in which the greater the inequality the more those at the top protect their privileged position, according to newly released research by an international group that includes Victoria University of Wellington's Associate Professor Ronald Fischer.

Associate Professor Fischer, from the School of Psychology, collaborated with researchers from the University of Oslo in Norway, Aarhus University in Denmark and Harvard University in the United States.

Their study into the psychology of 45,000 people across 27 countries, including New Zealand, looked at how inequality and instability motivate dominant social groups, leading to greater racism, sexism, opposition to welfare and even willingness to use violence.

Combined with previous researchers’ findings about how those at the bottom of social hierarchies often accept their lot rather than engage in potentially costly conflicts they think they are bound to lose, the study demonstrates how inequality becomes internalised by people and entrenched as the norm.

Associate Professor Fischer and his fellow researchers tracked the public’s belief in a natural hierarchy between different groups of people in society. In psychology, this is called social dominance orientation (SDO).

They found average levels of SDO were higher in societies where there is a greater risk of violent conflicts, absence of good governance, poor social progress in terms of meeting basic needs such as access to health care and education, lack of democracy, lack of a free press and lack of gender equality.

“New Zealand has been pretty good in this respect overall, but there are clear signs for worry in the future. Our research shows that, as we become more unequal, with poorer wealth distribution, we risk becoming a much more unpleasant society, with more discrimination and potentially more violence,” says Associate Professor Fischer.

“With all the changes that are happening, I am not sure we will have the same nice society in 10 years’ time.”  

In the US, the researchers asked more than 4,000 white Americans across 30 states whether they support hierarchy or equality between different groups of people.

They also asked about racism, sexism and whether respondents would be willing to participate in the persecution of immigrants.

“We simply asked people to imagine the government decides to outlaw immigrant organisations in the future and then asked each participant if they would inform the police of any members of immigrant organisations they knew of, whether they would participate in hunting down immigrants and in attacks on immigrant headquarters, and whether they would support use of physical force and execution of immigrant leaders,” says the study’s senior author, Lotte Thomsen, Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Oslo and in Political Science at Aarhus University.

Again, the extremity of responses reflected the extent of inequality and violence in the state concerned.

The study’s lead author, Jonas Kunst, a postdoctoral fellow in Psychology at the University of Oslo and in Political Science at Aarhus University, warns of “a vicious circle of inequality and violence”, saying: “Because economic inequality is increasing in many parts of the world, this is an important cause for concern.”

Associate Professor Fischer adds that rising inequality in Europe since the 2008 global financial crisis and introduction of economic austerity measures “pretty much sets the stage where people become much more racist, sexist, and it potentially unravels a lot of the progress that has been made over the last 50 years in terms of increasing equality and making a better society”.

The study is published in the research article ‘Preferences for group dominance track and mediate the effects of macro-level inequality and violence across societies’ in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the world’s top three scientific journals.

Its fourth author was Jim Sidanius, John Lindsley Professor of Psychology and of African American Studies at Harvard University.