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Inequality

On the subject of competition, there’s a wide wide range of attitudes: everything from “Competition is great!” to “Competition is all right in certain contexts.” You might note that no one ever takes the position that competition is bad. That should tell us something about the way we think.

I should point out that the question “Is competition good or bad?” is question that can be answered. It’s too broad in its scope. It’s like asking whether rain is good or bad. It nurtures crops, and it causes floods. The next logical question is “Just how much rain are we talking about?” and likewise, we have to ask ourselves “just how much competition are we talking about?” How intense is the competition? Who’s competing? What are the stakes?

There are, however, some interesting insights on the subject of competition.

Paul Piff, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Social Behaviour at UC Berkley led of team of researchers to see how people behave in competitions where one side has a very clear advantage. Specifically, they brought several hundred students in to play Monopoly in pairs and gave one player in each game much more starting cash than his opponent. “Rich” players received twice as much money every time the passed Go, and they had more opportunities to move around the board.

How did it play out?

The “rich” players displayed outward signs of aggression and dominance behaviour. They often made celebratory gestures such as thrusting their fists into the air or shouting “Yeah!” It should be noted that both players knew the game was rigged from the start, and the rich players had no reason to believe that his or her success was the result of some innate talent for Monopoly. Nevertheless, rich players often gloated about their success while their opponents displayed signs of humility. When asked why they had won this particular game – knowing full well that the game was rigged – the rich players often talked about their smart decisions. They also helped themselves to the nearby snacks far more often than their poor opponents.

So what does this tell us about competition in situations where one side has a clear differential advantage? Players who knew perfectly well that they were blessed with advantage in a rigged game still thought they deserved to win.

Make no mistake, competition has an effect on the way we relate to other people. It changes the way we see the world and our place in it. Is that good? Bad? Well, probably a little of both. The problem is that we make the mistake of believing that competition is always a good thing.

We live in a highly stratified society in which we are required to compete for access to even the most basic resources. The problem is that such competition is by no means fair. Some people start the game with incredible advantages before they ever make that first dice roll, while others enter the playing field with terrible handicaps.

I’m reminded of a meme that I saw on Facebook about six months ago.

Funniest_Memes_paris-hilton-vs-nikola-tesla_8402.jpeg

A bit of an oversimplification, I’ll grant you, but the merits of Tesla or Hilton or the system that enabled them to succeed or fail is not the point. Whatever you may think of Tesla or Hilton, the fact remains that if the research on Monopoly is any indication, Paris probably believes that she deserves everything she has. She probably thinks she earned it.

Merit is a highly subjective concept, and I can’t speak to the issue of whether or not Paris deserves the things she has. I can, however, say with a reasonable degree of certainty that had she been born to average middle-class parents, she wouldn’t be worth one hundred million.

There is something problematic about a system in which people who win the birth lottery believe that all of their good fortune is the result of hard work. It casts a negative judgment on those whose fortunes are not so good. What’s more, there are definite disadvantages that come from living in a society with a high degree of inequality.

Richard Wilkinson, a professor of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham, conducted a plethora of statistical analysis on trends in crime, life-expectancy, mental health and social cohesion across countries with varying degrees of economic inequality. His results? In a nutshell: as the wealth gap widens, social problems get worse.

It should be noted that poor countries with low levels of inequality are doing better than rich countries with high levels of inequality. This suggests that these social problems have very little to do with actual wealth and much more to do with perceived differences in social standings. In short, the struggle to “keep up with the Joneses” is killing us.

Paul Piff, the man who created the Monopoly experiment, conducted several other studies to see how perceived social status affects human behaviour. Among other things, he learned that the drivers of expensive cars were less likely to obey traffic laws and that survey participants who identified themselves as having a higher income were more likely to take candy from a jar that was specifically marked as being reserved for children.

Most importantly, however, Paul Piff discovered that small changes to people’s values were remarkably effective in producing positive behavioural changes regardless of social class. In one study, participants were asked to watch a video on childhood poverty. Afterward, they were tested to see how willing they were to offer their own time to a stranger in distress. After watching the video, wealthy people proved to be just as generous as their less-affluent neighbours.

What does this tell us?

Three things.

One: inequality produces a sense of entitlement in those people near the top of the social ladder. Two: inequality has a negative impact on everyone’s health. Even the wealthy do worse overall if they live in a society with high levels of inequality. Three: appeals to generosity and compassion work equally well on all people regardless of their social station.

From these three things, I think it’s safe to conclude that minimizing social inequality ought to be one of our goals. How do we do that? As I said before, I believe the answer is to give all citizens access to basic life-sustaining resources. I have demonstrated in previous entries that it is within our power to do this.

And that it is to our benefit to do this

Let’s get working on that already.

_______________

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