Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Inequality and anxiety

Richard Smith has written an interesting article in Educational Theory which looks at the causal mechanism Wilkinson and Pickett propose in chapter 3 of The Spirit Level to explain the correlations they show in the rest of the book. As Smith writes...

The argument runs as follows. Unequal income leads to unequal status, and in a world where people are alert to and anxious about where they are positioned on the social ladder, this anxiety affects both mental and physical health. Psychological insecurity and distress rise; self-esteem falls.

There is, however, a problem tallying this theory with the empirical evidence.

A highly inconvenient fact for their thesis, and one that they fully acknowledge, is that over the time-scale under consideration self-esteem as well as anxiety ‘‘showed a very clear long-term upward trend. It looked as if, despite the rising anxiety levels, people were also taking a more positive view of themselves over time’’ (SL, 36). Surely, it would seem, anxiety about status should be reflected in lower, not higher, self-esteem.

Wilkinson and Pickett’s solution is to distinguish ‘‘healthy’’ self-esteem from the defensive kind found in those prone to violence, racism, and insensitivity to others. This latter kind is fragile and more akin to ‘‘whistling in the dark’’ (SL, 37); we might compare this analysis with Ruth Cigman’s discussion of ‘psychological fraudsters.’’

In the context this looks like a rather desperate strategy on Wilkinson and Pickett’s part to save the explanation in terms of concern for status and self-esteem.

I agree with Smith's analysis, but I think there is more to be said. Chapter 3 is crucial to everything that follows in The Spirit Level, but, despite being superficially plausible if read casually, what little evidence they present does not support their argument. Indeed, the evidence goes some way to refuting it.

They start the chapter with two graphs showing the rise in anxiety amongst US college students between 1952 and 1993 (based on research by June M. Twenge) (p. 34). These are the only graphs in the chapter and they show anxiety rising continuously since the early 1950s. Whatever else might have been responsible for this trend, it was not income inequality, as Wilkinson and Pickett acknowledge:

We are not suggesting that [these rises in anxiety] were triggered by increased inequality ... the rises in anxiety and depression seem to start well before the increases in inequality which in many countries took place during the last quarter of the twentieth century. (p. 35)

Not only did inequality not rise until much later, but inequality actually fell in the first half of the period. What bearing do these graphs have on their inequality hypothesis? It is not at all clear, but Wilkinson and Pickett promise to explain, saying: "It is important to understand what these rises in anxiety about before their relevance to inequality becomes clear."

Their explanation begins with the discussion moving from anxiety to self-esteem (p. 36). Self-esteem appears to have risen over the period in much the same way as anxiety, but this anxiety, as Smith says, seems incongruous with rising self-esteem. Wilkinson and Pickett square this circle by arguing that this is really quasi-self-esteem, which reflects the way school-children are taught to have excessive faith in themselves, leading to narcissism.  There is, they say, good self-esteem and bad self-esteem, and this is the latter.

Smith has doubts about this argument, but even if we take it at face value, the connection with inequality eludes us. Neither anxiety nor self-reported self-esteem are in any way correlated with changes in the Gini coefficient.

Wilkinson and Pickett then introduce some causes of psychological stress which include "low social status, lack of friends, and stress in early life." They offer some rather banal observations such as "friends make you feel appreciated" and "how people see you matters." (p. 39) This is all perfectly plausible, but so what? Do people have fewer friends in less equal societies? We are not told, but there is no particular reason to think so.

The next study Wilkinson and Pickett discuss leaves us none the wiser because that, too, does not address income inequality at all (p. 41). They then return to the issue of anxiety and seem to be on the brink of explaining its relevance to inequality.

Why have these social anxieties increased so dramatically over the last half century—as Twenge's studies showing rising levels of anxiety and fragile, narcissistic egos suggest they have? Why does the social evaluative threat seem so great? A plausible explanation is the break-up of the settled communities of the past. (p. 42)

Again, this is more than plausible. The rapid rise in geographical mobility over the last half-century may well offer part of the explanation for the decline in social cohesion that has been documented by Putman and others. People who leave home are less likely to benefit from being around old friends and family. "Familiar faces," they write, "have been replaced by a constant flux of strangers. As a result, who we are, identify with, is endlessly open to question."(p. 42)

A lot of this appeals to common sense and is often based on sound sociological evidence, but still the link with income inequality is nowhere to be seen. It only arrives in the final pages of the chapter, and even then, speculatively. They repeat their admission that there is no correlation between rates of anxiety and rates of inequality...

Although the rises in anxiety that seem to centre on social evaluation pre-date the rise in inequality...

But they make the association all the same... is not difficult to see how rising inequality and social status differences may impact on them. (p. 43)

This is no more than a hunch and no evidence is presented in its favour. In fact, is is difficult to see how inequality impacts upon "the rise in anxiety", because none of the variables they associate with anxiety seem to be linked with inequality, and "the rise in anxiety" itself is demonstrably not linked with inequality in the time-series graphs that kicked off the chapter. Nothing they say in the intervening pages explains why anxiety rose when inequality was falling and continued to rise (at the same rate) when inequality went up.

Further hunches follow:

Greater inequality seems to heighten people's social evaluation anxieties by increasing the importance of social status. (p. 43)

No evidence is presented for this assertion (the only references given are a quote from a nineteenth century philosopher and a study which shows that people are judged on first impressions—neither mentions inequality).

Greater inequality is likely to be accompanied by increased status competition. It is not simply that where the stakes are higher each of us worries more about where he or she comes. It is also that we are likely to pay more attention to social status in how we assess each other. (p. 44) (my italics)

They may believe so, but what they think "likely" can only be viewed as conjecture unless it is backed up with evidence. This, they fail to provide. Instead, they discuss the "stark contrast between the way people see and present themselves" in Japan and the USA. The Japanese, we are told, are more modest while Americans are "more likely to attribute individual successes to their own abilities." This leads Wilkinson and Pickett to jump to the heroic conclusion that:

As greater inequality increases status competition and social evaluative threat, egos have to be propped up by self-promoting and self-enhancing strategies.

... Not only do large inequalities produce all the problems associated with social differences and the divisive class prejudices which go with them, but, as later chapters show, it also weakens community life, reduces trust, and increases violence. (p. 45)

If the comparison between Japan and the USA is supposed to seal the deal with the reader, it falls flat. As Saunders and others have noted, it would be hard to find a more hierarchical and status-conscious society than Japan. The modesty Wilkinson and Pickett attribute to the Japanese applies to many Asian societies. Furthermore, Japan's high suicide rate is not indicative of a low-anxiety nation.

By contrasting Japan and America, Wilkinson and Pickett are comparing apples with oranges. They are very different countries, to be sure, but the difference is rooted in culture, not income inequality. Wilkinson and Pickett say that by focusing on these two countries, they can contrast "the most equal with almost the most unequal of the rich market democracies". "Almost" is the key word here. The most unequal country in their book is actually Singapore, but if they had compared Singapore with Japan, they would not have achieved the desired effect.

So, to recap, Wilkinson and Pickett's theory goes as follows: Those of us who live in rich societies are "much more anxious than we used to be" (p. 33) and this rise in anxiety has been mirrored by a rise in self-esteem. This self-esteem, however, is not real self-esteem but narcissism driven by stress. This stress is driven by feelings of inferiority and the "social evaluative threat" which are "likely" to be driven by inequality.

There are many problems with this torturous chain of reasoning, not least Wilkinson and Pickett's tendency to oversimplify complex ideas and treat contentious theories as fact, but leaving them aside, let us take the proposition that stress and anxiety are the root causes of many modern social and health problems. If inequality is, in turn, the root cause of this anxiety, there must be a correlation between inequality and anxiety over time, but no amount of sophistry can disguise the fact that no such relationship exists.

Chapter 3 involves so many digressions and non-sequiturs that the unwary reader can be forgiven for having forgotten this little fact by the time they reach the end, and yet those two graphs indicating no correlation between anxiety and inequality seriously undermine their hypothesis.

But those graphs tell us something more. Wilkinson and Pickett are forced to accept that the rise in anxiety between 1950 and 1980 cannot be blamed on inequality because inequality was flat or falling during this period, but they never ask the obvious question—if inequality was not the cause, what was?

If the anxiety data is to be believed—and Wilkinson and Pickett cast no doubt on it—something important clearly happened after 1952 (at the latest) which led to greater anxiety, but Wilkinson and Pickett display not a hint of curiosity as to what this might be. Had they not been so committed to their a priori hypothesis, they might have paid more attention to this mysterious third variable. As it is, they ignore it for the remainder of the book in favour of their hunch that inequality is somehow the culprit despite their own evidence.


Precaseptica said...

The cold war could be a good place to start looking, if you want to know how the anxiety started rising.

The period, not the actual war. Obviously the means of production after the war went into the boom in production and therefore acquisition. This produces anxiety to keep up with the rising trends because of whatever income inequality already existed, because it gave the inequality a new role in society. To dish out cold justice as to who could be a part of the upturn and who could not.

The US also became a lot more prevalent in international struggles after the war. They started a war on every value that at a glance could even seem un-american, and it is potentially a producer of a lot the stress associated with identity crisis.

Furher lack of extensive bridging of the differences within society led to a greater social inequality, not only in incomes but also just in sense of personal identities.

It ties in well with the other studies they have done, and you have to recall that you cannot just do away with these statistics just because the researcher assumes you have a general understand of what else is going on in society.

I do, however, agree that it is the weak point in their use of science that they did not point these factors out when doing their research, but you can rest assured that none of their conclussions in The Spirit Level has been debunked thoroughly with this post you have written here.

Martin said...

A bit late to this site but nice to see something so comprehensive written up. It seemed to me a bit of a passing fad when I saw the 'equality trust' website a few years ago, but I was more enthusiastic then and wrote up a few obvious problems, eg:

I suppose I'm sadly surprised that the site and its authors continue to run and run in the mainstream media. I suppose it comes under the heading 'pseudoscience' in that if you feel Inequality Is Bad, then you find the "Equality Trust" and you think you have evidence to support that feeling as long as you don't look at it too hard

Mr. said...

This is very helpful and I'll read The Spirit Level with a more critical eye next time I turn to it. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

There is actually quite a bit of research pointing to a link between economic inequality and what is termed "biased self-perception", see for instance