The Effects of Inequality: Pt II. Impulsivity

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…


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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5 Responses to The Effects of Inequality: Pt II. Impulsivity

  1. Dan Dan says:

    Dave, you raise some very important questions and criticisms. The one I have to admit the greatest culpability for is the use of generalized terms like “those who play the lottery,” “shop at Walmart,” etc. It’s the interesting dichotomy between trying to incorporate statistical associations (meaning, variables that are not strictly related but share, say, 30% of their variation) into an informal, easily accessed medium. The former requires a philosophical perspective on statistical relationships and the gray-ness of their meaning, the latter, broad generalizations that are readable–especially when your blog is titled Everyday Evolution. By naming and casting the blog this way, I have explicitly eschewed the former concern when the two come into conflict (which is strange for a statistics professor, I guess) and certainly invite comments that couch statements that may accidentally develop into inappropriate stereotypes.
    As to some of the other comments, I have to say I disagree, in part because of your statement that this is about youth in X environment developing Y behavioral strategy as an adult. The truth of the matter is that the youth in question develops and adopts that behavioral strategy very early in development. Note how the impulsivity test at age 5 predicts behaviors throughout adolescence.
    To then compare these behaviors to “white collar” crimes lacks a certain commonality in origin. In terms of their damage to society, white collar crimes are both philosophically and quantiatively equal or worse than the simpler crimes that appear on the police blotter. However, they certainly do not arise from impulsivity, nor from unchecked aggressive patterns. Ponzi schemers are not necessarily bar brawlers. On the other hand, one socialized to a high level of direct conflict may see fit to use violence to attain what they want.
    I think something that may have unintentionally come across is my own condemnation of these tendencies toward aggression and impulsivity. This was not my intent. I express these characteristics as undesirable simply because they are condemned by society as a whole, and those who express them are often ostracized. Worse still, many individuals believe such behaviors to be the result of individual failures of self-control. The main point here is to point out that these associations are not the result of “better genes rising to the top,” but of the same basic genetic system adopting different behavioral strategies for different environmental challenges. Every environment has its dark sides as every social system provides its loopholes for exploitation. The quiet, manipulative abuses of “sophisticated” society are no better than the muggings that occur in back alleys. The problem is that a social structure characterized by aggression becomes a fearful, untrusting place, in turn undermining the possibility for collective action and productive cooperation. Further, the individuals who arise from these sub-societies will have difficulty finding a way to operate within the broader community’s more stringent social norms.

  2. Avatar Dave Gerstle says:

    I think I see where you are going with this, Dan, and of course it is a laudable enterprise… If our young people had more equal access to resources (money, social services, justice, stable social situations), they would become less aggressive, less impulsive adults. If children were not subjected to harsh conditions and scarcity, they would not try to violently take what they need once they grow up. But let me ask you a few questions:

    Aren’t there all sorts of injustices committed by the “haves”? Do “white collar” crimes not fall into this same category of “impulsive” or “high risk” behavior, even though these individuals came from financially affluent, or at least more comfortable backgrounds? Don’t wealthy people regularly wager their own security (and that of many others) in the stock market? Don’t they abuse their power and influence, and bilk those lower on the “totem pole”? Where is the data on such people and such crimes? Moreover, couldn’t we venture that the reason why poor people seem more prone to risky (i.e. criminal) behavior is that the police and justice systems in the US are biased against them? This seems like a pretty complicated social injustice to pin on a vague concept like “impulsivity”…. are they identified as criminals because they are impulsive, or are they criminals because they got caught?

    It is hardly a coincidence that Kruger’s conclusions point to greater levels of “property crime”… his data sets are made up of the kinds of criminals who are caught and punished. Their children wind up in foster homes. Their families are on state support. In short, they are institutionalized – and because of their institutionalization, the facts and figures of their lives (unlike the lives of those who are more affluent and more powerful) are more readily available to researchers like you and me and Kruger. This is problematic for rigorous and empirically accountable science.

    Just to point out: Your units of analysis – “haves”, “have nots”, and so on – leave a lot to be desired. In a context like the one you are writing, borrowing in stereotypes about categories of people (who plays the lottery or eats French cuisine or shops at WalMart) risks naturalizing those very categories and stereotypes. This begins when we start substituting generic terms like “environment” for any number of real places, real people, and their experiences. Of course, I get it… it’s a blog, not a journal article… but I think these are issues you could stand to be thinking about.

  3. Avatar Dave Gerstle says:

    Do you think we could use evolution to explain any of these phenomena?

  4. Avatar C. says:

    I wonder if there is a relationship between the *visibility* of economic disparity in a society and the etiology of psychopathy/sociopathy?

  5. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I wonder if there is a relationship between the *visibility* of economic disparity in a society and the etiology of psychopathy/sociopathy?

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