The Broken Ladder Book Summary - The Broken Ladder Book explained in key points
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The Broken Ladder summary

Keith Payne

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

4.2 (66 ratings)
20 mins

Brief summary

The Broken Ladder by Keith Payne explores how relative income, not absolute, affects our happiness and behaviour. It highlights the social cost of inequality and proposes actions to address this issue.

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    The Broken Ladder
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    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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    What is The Broken Ladder about?

    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.

    The Broken Ladder Review

    The Broken Ladder (2017) explores how our position in society affects our well-being and happiness. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • It provides compelling evidence backed by research, showing how inequality impacts every aspect of our lives.
    • Through vivid real-life examples, the book helps us understand the psychological and social effects of inequality, making it highly relatable and thought-provoking.
    • With its profound insights into social hierarchy and its impact on our minds and societies, this book challenges our perceptions and stimulates meaningful conversations.

    Who should read The Broken Ladder?

    • Social psychology
    • Anyone who wants to better understand inequality

    About the Author

    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 FAQs 

    What is the main message of The Broken Ladder?

    The main message of The Broken Ladder is how income inequality affects our well-being and society.

    How long does it take to read The Broken Ladder?

    The reading time for The Broken Ladder varies depending on the reader's speed, but it typically takes several hours. The Blinkist summary, however, can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is The Broken Ladder a good book? Is it worth reading?

    The Broken Ladder is an eye-opening read, providing insights into the impact of inequality. Worth reading for anyone interested in social issues.

    Who is the author of The Broken Ladder?

    The author of The Broken Ladder is Keith Payne.

    What to read after The Broken Ladder?

    If you're wondering what to read next after The Broken Ladder, here are some recommendations we suggest:
    • False Economy by Alan Beattie
    • Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey
    • Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas
    • Evicted by Matthew Desmond
    • An American Sickness by Elisabeth Rosenthal
    • Super Human by Dave Asprey
    • Our Malady by Timothy Snyder
    • Unscrewed by Jaclyn Friedman
    • Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche
    • The Monopolists by Mary Pilon