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June 01, 2022
Social Justice

Inequality is not only an economic layer but it is a real tax on the mind

Insight by Alessandro Sahebi

It is not just a material issue. If rich differentiated themselves from poor by merely owning luxurious yachts, designer bags or powerful cars, inequality would not be an issue. Or rather, it would be to a limited extent. We would argue about taste and expediency in ostentation, perhaps we would feel envy, certainly we would wish to experience at least for one day the feeling of being able to enjoy the famous "high life" without thinking about the monthly credit card statement. If this was inequality, perhaps there would be neither a debate on the topic nor this section within the Voice Over Foundation hub. 

The truth, though, is another one: economic inequality is harmful in many respects

And not only it is so in terms of the material effects of unequal distribution, which exist and affect economy, environment and work, but it is also and especially so from an intangible and psychological perspective. People's souls - or for science aficionados, psyches - are conditioned by what one has and doesn't have. A non-secret for insiders, an almost absent narrative element on the mainstream ground. 

The intangible effects of inequality 

Richness has traditionally been thought of, especially due to German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, as the access to productive or unproductive economic resources of a system. According to this interpretive prism, the greater share of richness one possesses, the higher will be one' s position in the social pyramid. Less investigated, however, are the psychosocial effects of class membership (1) because of the difficulty of measuring and displaying the results, whose indexes are far more complex than the numbers and graphs we are commonly accustomed to from economic science. 

A human being's life, however, is much more than what he or she is able to buy, and in academic environments, for the past few years, questions have begun to be addressed under the magnifying glass of non-economic disciplines about how much and what intangible effects inequality causes: what positional habits is involved (habits such as attending a museum or reading a book and which make our activity positional), how self-regard is modified, how self-esteem is stimulated or anesthetized, and what habitus, i.e., the cultural key to reproducing behavior in public, social classes wear, for instance. 

Having less: shyness and taxes on the mind

Let's start from the slime. Having less affects, first of all, the way we think. According to behavioral economist Sendhil Mullainathan and psychologist Eldar Sharif scarcity of resources acts on the individual's psyche in a comparable manner to what happens to those who carry a boulder on their shoulders or are overburdened with commitments and lacking free time. The two authors openly speak of a 'mind tax' on the poor that makes them less productive, less creative, less attentive to opportunities and more focused on the negative effects of their actions. Scarcity is not transitional, but it constantly absorbs people's attention and thoughts and has deep effects on human behavior and emotions.


Poverty, contrary to the claims of the meritocratic utopia, is not the effect of bad decisions; rather, in many cases, it is its cause as it alters the mind at conscious and unconscious levels, conditioning problem solving processes and throwing individuals into the spiral of failure. Having less is a condemnation that one becomes aware of in the early years of life and drags on throughout childhood and youth. A child realizes to be poor at the age of four, an age when the mastery and measure of material possession is still imperfect. And yet, at that age already, the perception of parents' social positioning begins to take shape and absorbs with it a set of hegemonic social stereotypes. At six, the wealthiest are identified as more competent, and at nine, the development of those who have less, from the standpoint of school performance, is lower than a peer belonging to the social class of the highest percentiles (2) of the population (3)

As evidenced in several studies (4), this distance increases, sometimes exponentially, in the college years - for those who have the opportunity to be able to enroll - and in the world of work, transforming economic inequality into an inequality of self-representation, with a section of the population blamelessly shy, unconfident, uncertain and self-limiting (5). Those who have less must, therefore, cope with consumption and lifestyles that worsen and shorten existences and must live with the ever-present feeling (which often results in guilt) of not being enough. For this burden, because of its purely psychological nature, there are no quantitative mathematical indexes as there are for material wealth, and that is why it can sometimes be invisible. And when something is not visible there is a risk of not noticing it. 

Having more: the narrative legitimization of success 

From slime to stars. Prestige is only legitimized when it belongs to the few. If, as mentioned, the display of positional goods were the only distinction between rich and poor, probably economic inequality could only be defined by material inequality. "Being classy," however, is the sine qua non for keeping social climbers out, and for this reason, as French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu reminds us, over time elites have equipped themselves to construct a series of overt signs, or symbolic capital, aimed at legitimizing and consolidating near-existential differences between social groups. 

From posture to language, from cultural capital to the display of healthy living and diet. In a permeable class society being elite is a stressful activity because, theoretically at least, the risk of falling into a lower section of the pyramid and losing privileges is possible. A peasant in the Middle Ages knew he was likely to die as a peasant. And although he might have imagined that he could be smarter than his lord, he could never have aspired to take his place. 

Today, the opportunity to become a "gentleman" starting from being a farmer is there, although data on the Social Mobility Index state that the social elevator in Europe and the U.S. is slowing down or has already broken down. Not only yachts, country estates and servants anymore, but what job you do, how many languages you speak and what schools you attend. These are the so-called social currencies, or intangible positional goods that are formally universally accessible but are often attained through perks (expensive tuition, exclusive networks, purchased time) that are difficult for most to access. 

To conceal the abyss of possibility that allows the wealthiest to achieve greater recognition is the narrative of success: in a society oriented toward evaluating individuals for their achievements and scarcely inclined to consider the causes that enabled, or prevented, achievement, it is easy to end up believing that those who have more simply deserve it. A belief, begun as fiction, that the elites themselves end up believing. In 1999, researchers and psychologists Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto formulated the Social Dominance theory to explain the genesis and development of legitimacy: the construction of a myth (such as may be competence, divine will, or a justifying historical event) is common in all hierarchical societies. Class legitimacy, for the two authors, is an arbitrary process: the best are the ones who decide signals and characteristics of success, and having affirmed them, they try to build a system where access to these metrics is easier for members of the ruling class. In retrospect, elites recognize this narrative as genuine and convince themselves that they deserve prestige and power. No mathematical indexes exist for this advantage either: a mix of material causes and a placebo effect on a social scale that further distances those who have, from those who have not. Under a thick crust of fake merit. 

Class and status 

What was written has long been known within academic circles. Less in song lyrics, in the easy slogans of personal coaches, in the loving but naive recommendations of teachers and parents. Recognizing that economic class determines status, where status also means the psychological causal matrix, would change the perception of the game. The purpose of this paper, which is culpably not exhaustive, is to introduce this small grain of sand in the gear.

Not only yachts, vacations and mansions. The differences are existential: we live far from each other, we do not communicate, we lead separate lives even on the intangible level. 

As philosopher Michael Sandel reminds us, this is a problem of democracy: a society where classes lead separate lives without ever meeting is a society that renounces the confrontation-encounter between different people, favoring high gilded walls. An apparent peace, but one that digs immense abysses between social groups. The fabric of our societies is in danger of tearing as a result of this distortion. Therefore, it is necessary to renarrate the true burden of inequality in order to start trying to patch up the community. And hopefully this paper will be the beginning of a long collective reflection that will challenge one of the greatest misconceptions of our time, namely that wealth is a genuine reward for effort. 

(1) Being mainly developed in the U.S., psychosocial research, according to C. Volpato, has given more interest to intersections such as ethnicity and gender. Exceptions reported by the scholar are Argyle and Frurnhan who remain, however, marginal.

(2) Since it is an exponential phenomenon there is a growth of the phenomenon, which in this case affects the first decile compared to the last one.

(3) C. Volpato in Le radici psicologiche della disuguaglianza.

(4) For the work aspect see Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, The hidden injuries of class; Università:Zorana Ivcevic e James Kaufmann Looking Forward: The Potential of Creativity for Social Justice and Equity (and Other Exciting Outcomes) Learning and individual differences 2013.

(5) World Values Survey in Haushofer and Fehr (2014).

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