Impacts of Inequality Pt. III: Wasteful Resource Displays

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.


About Dan

Daniel Tumminelli O’Brien, PhD, is the Project Manager of the Harvard Boston Research Initiative at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. He is also a Visiting Assistant Professor at Binghamton University where he has been a key player in the development of the Binghamton Neighborhood Project. Both projects bring together academic and city agencies in the development of innovative solutions for the everyday challenges of urban life. Amidst these efforts, his own research focuses on urban social behavior. As an educator, he has concentrated on pedagogical techniques that bring evolutionary theory to classrooms outside the biological sciences.
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2 Responses to Impacts of Inequality Pt. III: Wasteful Resource Displays

  1. Dan Dan says:

    I have not had much time to write casually, but do owe this comment a response. Dave, your response seems to be confusing evidence with illustrations. I do cite a few publications here and there, which you fail to note, but overall that’s not the area of science being employed here. Science, as you know, consists of quite a few components or skill sets, including theoretical reasoning and models, methodology, and statistical analysis. The exercise of this blog is to embody the first. I’m explaining correlations between environment and behavior with evolutionary models, and calling upon manifestations of psychological processes to paint the picture. Never do I state that “all” people from a particular background behave or operate a certain way, nor do I attempt to condemn nor reinforce the behaviors that I’m describing. I’m simply placing them in context and making it clear why they seem productive to those who perpetuate them. “Flexing muscles…make-up…flashy cars” are all expressions of mating psychology, and ones that we can all relate to. There are certainly more reliable and more valid ways to operationalize these variables so that the measure is cross-culturally appropriate, but, again, that is not the exercise being explored here. I could be more couched in my language, yes, but I do not at all agree that I’m “leaving you with empty cliches and platitudes.” Just because certain behaviors seem to invoke simplified stereotypes doesn’t mean they aren’t real events. And if they are real events, they are a manifestation of some evolved system. I’m simply connecting those dots. In fact, I’d argue the opposite: that I’m giving these stereotypes meaning and value, and ascribing to them an important role in some people’s lives. I am not minimizing those people and their “choices,” but validating them by explicating the ecologies to which they’re responding.

  2. Dave Gerstle says:

    Dan – I sympathize with your needs to return to your primary research. On the other hand, I’m sure this blog doesn’t eat up so much time that you cannot take a moment to consider the kinds of generalizations you are making. I am sorry, but your evidence for these postings is, by and large, a collection of cliches and glosses about fairly complex socio-cultural practices. Flexing muscles… Make up… Flashy cars… These concepts may serve to introduce an audience to an evolutionary perspective on US society, but they do so at the expense of three rather important things: the historical and political facts about the real people and the lives they live, the rigor of scientific methodology, and the accountability of professional scientists in fairly representing the former and staying true to the latter. Popularizing science is all fine and good, but when it leaves us with empty cliches and platitudes, the cost is simply too high.

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