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The Broken Ladder

How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die

By Keith Payne
15-minute read
Audio available
The Broken Ladder by Keith Payne

The Broken Ladder (2017) explores the psychological, physical, and social ramifications of rising inequality. As the rich get richer, it powerfully demonstrates, everyone else feels poorer, regardless of material circumstances – with devastating consequences for all.

  • Social psychology
  • Anyone who wants to better understand inequality

Keith Payne is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina and a leading expert in the psychology of inequality. His research on the cognitive and emotional impact of wealth distribution has been featured in the Atlantic and the New York Times, and his articles have appeared in Scientific American and Psychology Today.

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The Broken Ladder

How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die

By Keith Payne
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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The Broken Ladder by Keith Payne
Synopsis

The Broken Ladder (2017) explores the psychological, physical, and social ramifications of rising inequality. As the rich get richer, it powerfully demonstrates, everyone else feels poorer, regardless of material circumstances – with devastating consequences for all.

Key idea 1 of 9

Feeling poor has less to do with your material circumstances than with how they compare to those of others.

Have you ever visited an old castle and wondered what it was like to live there? Maybe you’ve imagined yourself master of Versailles, feasting on the finest foods, strolling the perfectly manicured gardens.

But if you consider the nitty-gritty of daily existence, life in a seventeenth-century palace suddenly seems less appealing. Louis XIV didn’t have hot water or air conditioning, after all. And he definitely didn’t have a microwave. In fact, by today’s standards, he lived in utter deprivation.

The key message here is: Feeling poor has less to do with your material circumstances than with how they compare to those of others.

 

Research shows that only about 20 percent of people who report feeling poor actually are poor. So what’s happening with the other 80 percent? Why do so many people see themselves as poor even when their income places them squarely in the middle class? Or even, in some cases, the upper-middle class?

Consider a family doctor earning $200,000 a year. She probably lives in a big home in a safe neighborhood, drives a nice car, and owns a lot of nice things. She may have everything she wants, but if she compares herself to the brain surgeon next door, the one making $800,000, she’ll feel poor. Depending on her expenses, she may even feel as though she’s living paycheck to paycheck, barely scraping by. That may sound crazy, but it’s actually quite normal.

Consider yourself. Let’s say someone asks you how much money you make. You might be put off, but you know the answer. Now imagine someone asks you if you make enough money. What do you say? What does enough mean? How do you measure it?

 

If you’re struggling to come up with a good answer, there’s a reason. While we have physiological sensors in our bodies that help us answer a material question like “do you have enough food?” we don’t have sensors for answering an abstract question like “do you have enough money?” The only way we can make a judgment about that is by comparing ourselves with everyone else. Do other people seem to have nicer things? Do they seem to suffer less financial difficulty? If the answer is yes, we feel poor, no matter our actual income.

 

In the coming blinks, we’ll explore the impact that has on us as individuals and on the societies we create and inhabit.

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