Humans may have a brain-deep aversion to income inequality

… or at least that’s the case according to researchers at CalTech, who’ve been using fMRI to examine how the human brain responds to rewards [via Freakonomics; image by jsmjr].

… what was unknown was just how hardwired that dislike really is. “In this study, we’re starting to get an idea of where this inequality aversion comes from,” he says. “It’s not just the application of a social rule or convention; there’s really something about the basic processing of rewards in the brain that reflects these considerations.”

The brain processes “rewards”—things like food, money, and even pleasant music, which create positive responses in the body—in areas such as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) and ventral striatum.

Procedural and methodological stuff follows, so let’s skip to the kicker:

As it turned out, the way the volunteers—or, to be more precise, the reward centers in the volunteers’ brains—reacted to the various scenarios depended strongly upon whether they started the experiment with a financial advantage over their peers.

“People who started out poor had a stronger brain reaction to things that gave them money, and essentially no reaction to money going to another person,” Camerer says. “By itself, that wasn’t too surprising.”

What was surprising was the other side of the coin. “In the experiment, people who started out rich had a stronger reaction to other people getting money than to themselves getting money,” Camerer explains. “In other words, their brains liked it when others got money more than they liked it when they themselves got money.”

“We now know that these areas are not just self-interested,” adds O’Doherty. “They don’t exclusively respond to the rewards that one gets as an individual, but also respond to the prospect of other individuals obtaining a reward.”

That’s a lovely interpretation that I’d dearly love to believe in, and I have not even a fraction of the medical knowledge I’d need in order to attempt to refute it, nor refute the way the research was framed.

So instead I’ll pose a question: if we’re so hardwired to loathe income inequality, and those starting with greater fortunes are supposed to enjoy seeing others rewarded more than themselves, why exactly is income inequality such a widespread feature of almost every culture on the planet?

7 thoughts on “Humans may have a brain-deep aversion to income inequality”

  1. Because being civilised means we’ve overcome our hardwired nature. But we’ve not bothered determining which bit of hardwiring is good and which is bad…

  2. This is a nice theory that doesn’t pass the common sense test. What we tend to see in the “wild” is more of an I’ve got mine, you can’t have yours way of thinking. Maybe this hardwiring is related to our tendency to want to see our family or community or tribe rewarded over the other or the stranger. But it still seems that we tend to look at all resources as a zero-sum game, that for me to have more, someone is going to have to have less. Not that that’s necessarily an accurate reflection of reality, but that seems to be our tendency for viewing most situations.

  3. I don’t doubt that these findings mean something, but what exactly is not clear. There may very well be some pro-equality effects that are “hard-wired,” but of course our economic attitudes are an amalgam of tons and tons of different responses, most of which have not yet been treated scientifically.

    There has been some interesting work on our sense of fairness, notably in studies of ultimatum games.

    As to the study discussed above, to me it fits a status-seeking model at least as well as an equality-enhancing one. Consider: the poor (in the experiment) do not have a positive response to others’ gains, because those gains are likely to decrease the relative status of the subject. The already rich may have a positive response because they are high enough above that there is no threat to their status.

  4. Why do people play lotteries? Everyone with an inch of sense knows that lotteries are a scam, largely to boost tax or mob revenues. I think faith in capitalism is the same – people realize that hard work, talent or special powers won’t get anyone rich – it is by and large luck. “being discovered” and all that. Or “having the right parents”.

    Most people (everyone else) are statistically destined for mediocrity. Nobody expects to one day be that old guy sniffing glue living under the bridge who screams to jesus all the time. Yet in every society at least 5% of people go to shits and less than 5% make it bigtime.

    I think if people were more rational they’d reject the curret system we are in. But I believe they do not out of misattribution, or celebrity admiration, or a gross misunderstanding of genetics. Apophenia maybe. Belief in fate. Faith.

    I recently compared belief in market fundamentalism (and implicitly, condoning disparities) as a religion. Try it – express dount on capitalism in polite conversation and watch those championing it – the response mechanism has the same dynamic as the goddist fanatics rushing to defend the honor or baby jebus. It is a belief system.

  5. Well, now that you’ve gotten that out of your system, I don’t suppose we can have a discussion that doesn’t involve assuming that people who disagree with you are stupid, evil, and/or crazed zealots?

  6. That’s an easy one to answer.

    In a feedback system the positive feed back loop itself will influence the outcome more than the random actions of the participants.

  7. Here’s the other thing: they’re taking a fairly biased interpretation. Think of it this way – maybe it’s not “equality” but interest. If I have no money (no resources), then while status is important what I really need is to get money for myself and my friends/family. Who cares if anonymous neighbor down the hall is making good money if I’m still living off of ramen?

    Flipside, if I already HAVE money, I don’t need to worry about getting MORE money/resources, I need to worry about KEEPING them. What’s the biggest threat outside of Acts of Nature to money/resources? Other humans. What humans are best prepared to threaten my resources (and the dominance that comes with it)? Those who are ambitious. Simply put, I don’t care about those who don’t have ambition (who are not increasing their income), but those amongst my peers AND those below me AND those above me who are working to INCREASE their power/money/resources… they’re a threat to me.

    Again, that’s not necessarily “How things are”, but it is another way to look at it. It may be not that we are “against” inequality, but that depending on which end of the scale we start at, our interactions with it will be different and where our attention is focused is also going to be different.

    Not all kings aim for conquest, but all kings fight to stay king.

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