Inequality in society harms our mental health – how can we fix it?

“Wealth is not a measure of worth. But low income is related to feelings of inferiority.” Across a range of countries, studies have shown, the experience of poverty leads to people believing they have failed themselves for being poor, and accepting that others feel like that about them.

This is part of the remarkable findings of professors Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, epidemiologists, whom I heard giving a talk on inequality on Wednesday night in a Keswick church.

Speaking alternately and informally, the professors reminded an attentive audience of how common it is for people to feel inadequate in social gatherings. They may feel they aren’t dressed correctly, can’t make small talk, and are scared of being judged. Sometimes people find social contact so difficult that they withdraw from social life. 

“Yet social contact is crucial to health and to happiness”, the speakers said.

They explained that income inequality is linked to anxiety about social status. There has been a study across 28 European nations of social anxiety, looking at it in relation to different income levels in these societies. The study found that there is more anxiety about status in unequal societies, and the more inequality, the greater the anxiety.

It was apparently known ten years ago when the two professors’ important book ‘The Spirit Level’ was published that there was more mental illness in more unequal societies. But studies of social psychologists, they told us, had led them to understand how this may happen. People made to feel they are inferior will sometimes struggle against the feeling, but others will accept it, internalise a feeling of subordination and submission, and become more prone to depression.

Other psychological effects of living in a more unequal society, the speakers continued, include more wrong self-estimation. Apparently in the USA 96% of drivers think that their driving is better than the average! In Sweden it is 66%. The greater the inequality, the greater is the tendency for people to be narcissistic, so that it becomes difficult to tell the differences between self-esteem and narcissism. (And “It’s awful if narcissism gets to a position of power!” they added, to rueful laughter from the audience.)

Great social anxiety also leads to greater consumption, they went on. This might be of alcohol or drugs. But people also try to show their higher status by having ‘high-value stuff’. “Having high-value stuff shows I am a high-value person.” So consumerism increases in the more unequal society.

“Why should human society turn out like this?” mused Richard Wilkinson. He wondered whether it is natural for human beings to want dominance rather than submission, and whether the market system is natural. “No it is not”, he answered himself. He referred to hunter-gatherer societies which were shown by social anthropologists to be far more egalitarian, and added, “So we’re not inherently nasty.” The desire for dominance can be held in check by counter-dominance strategies in society, for instance by ostracising over-bossy leaders.

Studies show that the idea of a natural hierarchy in society is false, the professor went on, and neither is there a huge inherited difference in intelligence, which is affected by hundreds of different genes. Our brains are shaped by what we do – by studying languages, for example, or physical activities such as dancing. It has been shown that London black-cab drivers who acquire ‘The Knowledge’ have ‘smarter brains’.

We have different abilities, but the idea of inherent differences is a myth, the speaker continued. We have different strategies for domination – and for human co-operation. In more equal societies, we can change.

For sustainable economies, he concluded, we need to oppose the drive to consumerism and self-interest, and reduce inequality. We want greater democracy in the economic sphere, by such means as co-operatives, lower pay ratios, trade unions and mutual societies, making a gradual shift. “It’s not just a matter of changing the tax system. A greater culture of equality is important.” 

The full thinking of the two speakers, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, can be followed in their latest book, ‘The Inner Level’. ISBN 978-1-846-14741-8

* Katharine Pindar is a long-standing member of the Lib Dems and an activist in the West Cumbrian constituency of Copeland and Workington.