So, to be honest, I’ve bored of this theme before even getting to the end of my list of points. The holidays waylayed me a bit, as did my desire to work on my primary research, which this is not. Today I’m going to cover one last psychological impact of income inequality that is pretty powerful, but in the next post I’m going to connect it to my main interest, which is the function of community and social connectivity.
But, today, we’re back to sexual selection, which I discussed a while back in reference to holiday shopping. One of the most fundamental aspects of our psychology is a set of behaviors and attitudes intended to attract and attain mates. A large portion of this is what evolutionary psychologists (and biologists, for that matter) refer to as “courtship display.” This can be as direct and personal as flirtation, flattery, or telling jokes, but certainly includes indirect displays. Males flex their muscles, tell stories, and perform in various ways (singing, dancing, etc.) to demonstrate their genetic worth. However, genetic value is only worth so much, and being able to feed a family is just as important. In turn, males also buy and drive big, expensive cars. They wear flashy clothes and watches, buy big gifts for women they are courting, and make shows of wealth. Likewise, females use makeup and clothing to accentuate their youthful, feminine features to attract males. They are also just as interested in resource displays as males, though they do so less often to attract the men themselves and more to demonstrate how much those men care about them (for example, large engagement rings and other forms of jewelry).
Turning to income inequality, when there is a large disparity between haves and have-nots, it’s better to be a have than a have not. For males, giving off the impression of being a have is vitally important for attracting the females that they find attractive. (It is also important for compelling the allegiance of other males and some level of dominance, but I’d like to simplify this to reproductive psychology for the moment being.) So, a have will then demonstrate his wealth while maintaining the ability to be responsible with his resources, but a have not is faced with a difficult decision. Spend money on a resource signal—like a flashy car, expensive jeans or a jacket, modern technology like a Droid or iPhone—or on prudent self-care—quality food, saving for a house?
And in the end, the resource display will win out more often than not. When there is complete income equality, such a display is unnecessary. Attraction can be based on other, more innate traits and interpersonal compatibility. However, as inequality stretches, we see a greater need to distinguish oneself. And for most younger people, this is more salient than long-term goals. Heck, what’s long-term success worth if you can’t attract someone not worth sharing it with?
In such a situation, far more resources are wasted on these displays. In fact, nations with greater income inequality spend more on advertising and nonessential commodities. The United States tops that list. And such frivolity is okay for the well-being of the have’s, but the have not’s will suffer greatly for it. I’ve done research in public housing where the living rooms have 40” flat-screen TV’s, Wii’s and X-Boxes, and the residents are interrupted during interviews to answer their top-of-the-line smart phones.
My partner, a social worker, has experienced many of the same events with her impoverished clients. Stepping outside of the realm of reproductive success, she had a family last year that could not find enough money to put food on the table. She had to council them that the money that was being spent on video games for the children should be transferred to sustenance. They felt this was unfair to the children, as their schoolmates had the same luxuries and they should, too.
I’ll leave off with a quick diagramming of the domino chain here: income inequalityà greater need for status displaysà greater waste of resourcesà further deterioration of the quality of life for the underprivileged.
And then how do we get help for the underprivileged?Government? Compassionate conservatism? Why the former doesn’t work, and the latter is a myth in the next post.