The last post was about aggression, but, at a more basic level, it was about the costs and benefits of taking risks. Income inequality makes the risk of attacking another individual—attempting to plunder their belongings—worth it for those who are lacking. Similarly, it can promote just about any type of risk, be it social or material.
Who plays the lottery most often? The poor. There’s no other path to the top. Why do famous sports players and musicians squander massive amounts of money on frivolities? Well, that, in part, is a different question that I’ll discuss in the next post, however, why they often have gambling issues is likely a result of this same attraction to risk.
In the psychology literature, this is called “impulsivity.” A very cool paper by Dan Kruger (Dan, you’ve been cited in two consecutive posts!) looks at the relationships between being raised in a positive vs. negative social environment, aggression and impulsivity. He found that those who had a negative social environment growing up were more impulsive, and this greater impulsivity led to greater aggression and property crime.
Now a negative social environment is not equivalent to being on the low end of the income gradient, but the two are very similar in our society. Note that income inequality inspires aggressive behavior, thus lower quality social environments. Nonetheless, the point stands that when an individual is a have-not, big risks provide opportunities that otherwise would never arise. On the other hand, impulsivity of this sort can land an individual in quite a bit of hot water, eroding the little that they do have, or putting them in other uncomfortable positions.
The ultimate irony here is that our society also frowns on impulsivity to a certain extent. It appears undisciplined and pathological. In fact, not only do we frown on it, we have constructed a system in which the only way to reach the top is by repressing whimsical impulses. Our schools and work forces are based on prudence, discipline, and long-term striving. In fact, children who “fail” an impulsivity test at 5 years old can be predicted to have lower GPA’s, SAT scores, etc. at 18. These expectations, however, run counter to the environment that many on the low-end of the totem pole experience as a youth. They develop in response to these early stimuli in order to be adapted to what their brain believes to be the local environment for life. Unfortunately, they’re left completely unprepared for the broader environment, and, thus, are at an immediate disadvantage.
More in the next post…