Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Inequality, Conspiracy Theories, and Religious Belief

Keith Payne is a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina whose specialty is the psychology of inequality and discrimination.  He has produced an interesting and enlightening book titled The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die.

Humans are animals evolved from species that form hierarchical ladders where there were alpha apes and status ranks for everyone else.  With status came privilege.  It is likely that early human groups spent much of their time with the same status concerns as our ape ancestors.  While humans have evolved their own unique properties over time, the tendency for human groups to form a hierarchy is still present.  All human assemblies tend to arrive at a leader and various levels of followers.  While precise hierarchical levels tend to exist mainly in military organizations, all members of the assembly will be conscious of their status and concerned that they are treated fairly given their status.

Payne uses the symbol of a ladder on which people project their assumed positions to illustrate inequality and its consequences in human organizations.  He further concludes from psychological studies and from anthropological arguments that humans are wired to continuously monitor their environment for signs of status loss or status gain.  This activity is innate and usually takes place subconsciously.

“….no one ever mentions something that we know to be true, both from scientific studies and from simply being human: ‘I crave status’.”

When asked to assess their status by placing themselves on the rungs of a ladder, it becomes clear that people view their status in ways that are only slightly related to the presumed status markers of income, education and type of job.  Rather, presumed status seems to depend on how we compare ourselves to those we choose as peers.

“It is true that, on average, people with higher incomes, more education, and more prestigious jobs do rate themselves higher on the ladder.  But the effect is relatively small.  In a sample of, say, a thousand people, some will rate themselves at the top, others will rate themselves at the bottom, and many will be in between.  But only about 20 percent of their self-evaluation is based on income, education, and job status.”

Poor persons can feel comfortable with their status if their peers, to whom they compare themselves, are in similar situations.  On the other hand, a mere millionaire who lives in a world of multimillionaires can experience the stress normally associated with poverty.  That is an important concept to grasp.

“….inequality is not the same thing as poverty, although it can feel an awful lot like it….Inequality makes people feel poor and act poor, even when they’re not.  Inequality so mimics poverty in our minds that the United States of America, the richest and most unequal of countries, has a lot of features that better resemble a developing nation than a superpower.”

The health and longevity problems that are associated with poverty have been well documented.  What Payne is saying is that the same problems arise for people who are not objectively poor, but who merely feel poor because they suffer a status deficit.  Inequality then includes not only those who are of low income and are objectively poor, but those who have sufficient income to not be considered poor yet feel poor.

“We have to take subjective perceptions of status seriously, because they reveal so much about people’s fates.  If you place yourself on a lower rung, then you are more likely in the coming years to suffer from depression, anxiety, and chronic pain.  The lower the rung you select, the more probable it is that you will make bad decisions and underperform at work.  The lower the rung you select, the more likely you are to believe in the supernatural and in conspiracy theories.  The lower the rung you select, the more prone you are to weight issues, diabetes, and heart problems.  The lower the rung you select, the fewer years you have left to live.”

“Let me be clear that I am not simply asserting that, if you are poor, then all of these things are more likely to happen to you.  I am stating, rather, that these things are more likely to happen to you if you feel poor, regardless of your actual income.”

In an earlier article we discussed the connection between inequality and health, longevity, and the impulse to make unwise decisions.  Here the focus will be on Payne’s claim that feeling poor or unequal will tend to make you more likely to “believe in the supernatural and in conspiracy theories.”

The various studies that psychologists perform to try and understand why humans do the things they do have firmly supported the conclusion that our brains come wired in such a way that we have a need to believe that the world is an orderly place where things that happen have explanations.  This need is strong enough that we will, at times, be moved to invent explanations where none exist.  The psychologists also tell us that this need becomes stronger at times when we feel most powerless.  The collateral effects of being poor and the similar effects of feeling poor that inequality creates then feed this need to have explanations and result in a tendency to believe in conspiracy theories and the supernatural.

“This assumption that the world is orderly and predictable is a kind of mental bedrock that forms the foundation for all of our perception, thinking, and believing.  We are so good at generating regular patterns that it can at times interfere with our ability to recognize that no pattern exists at all.”

“We are especially likely to manufacture meaningful patterns when we feel powerless.  The predictability, and therefore controllability, of patterns provides a bit of solace from the lack of control.”

Payne tells us that about 50 percent of the population will believe in various conspiracy theories at any given time.  Which theories are prevalent will depend on the circumstances of the moment, but they will have a common theme: a person or a group with power is in control and is causing things to happen.

“People who feel powerless tend to believe in conspiracies carried out by the powerful.”

“At bottom, conspiracy theories are about two things: power and distrust.  You can see the former at work in who believes which theories about whom.  The best predictor of which conspiracy theories people believe at any given time is which political party is in power.”

Distrust, particularly of government, drives a need for a more satisfying explanation of what is going on than is officially provided—and confirmation that someone is in charge of events.

“Distrust—not facts or logic—made even contradictory theories seem more plausible than the official account.  To believe in a conspiracy, you trade a bit of your belief that the world is good, fair, and just in exchange for the conviction that at least someone—anyone—has everything under control.”

This need to see a believable pattern in events has ramifications not only with respect to the judgment of physical facts, but also with respect to moral interpretations as well.  Payne recounts a famous experiment in which a young woman was attached to wires and subjected to a learning and memory test.  Each time she made a mistake she reacted as if in pain.  Observers were told that she was being given an electric shock each time she made a mistake.  The observers did not know that the shocks were staged and not real.  The girl made many mistakes and the lesson went on for a long time.  One might expect this situation to generate sympathy for the girl, but, as the experimenters expected, the opposite happened.

“This poor subject was suffering for the sake of a silly study, and the observers had every reason to feel sympathetic toward the poor victim.  And yet, they deplored her….[they] called her unlikeable and immature,  They said it would be hard to admire or respect someone like her and they would not like to get to know her.”

“In order to maintain the certitude that the world was fair, subjects manufactured flaws in the woman’s character.  Just as your visual system fills in the scene with assumptions to render the world sensible, so does your moral reasoning.  Good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people.  Something bad is happening to this woman.  Therefore, she must be a bad person.  All is well.”

Consider the distaste the Republican Party has for welfare policies.  In particular, focus on the Tea Party’s division of the world into makers and takers.  The good people of the world, the makers, deserve to have good things happen to them.  The people in need of welfare, the takers, must be bad people who deserve their misfortune.  All is well.

Given the human need to perceive a credible pattern in events and to believe that someone—anyone—is in charge of affairs, is it any wonder that religious beliefs would be popular in certain circumstances and at certain times?

“Monotheistic religions provide believers with the reassurance that a benevolent, all-knowing, and all-powerful being is controlling the universe.  This type of belief system offers many benefits.  Unlike conspiracy theories, which provide controllability but at the expense of benevolence, religious belief is the ultimate win-win.”

“If feeling powerless and insecure makes people more prone to see patterns and to give credence to conspiracy theories, it stands to reason that it would also intensify religious faith.  Studies by Aaron Kay have confirmed that when individuals are made to feel helpless or when the world is portrayed as chaotic and unpredictable, they hold stronger convictions in a powerful God who controls the universe.”

Given these claims, one would expect religion to flourish where poverty and inequality are high and to retreat where they are low.  That is exactly what is observed.

“….psychologists Kurt Gray and Daniel Wegner looked at the U.S. states where people had more or fewer hardships in their lives by compiling statistics on infant mortality, cancer deaths, infectious disease, violent crime, and environmental hazards.  They combined these maladies into a single ‘suffering index’ and plotted it against the proportion of people in each state who stated in polls that they strongly believed in God.”

“….the researchers found that anguish does not pose a theological problem for most believers.  Quite the opposite.  Like the biblical Job, the more people suffered, the more they believed in God.”

Payne also provides another demonstration of the dual nature of inequality and poverty and the universal need for access to a source of “answers.”  The previous results suggest that as nations become wealthier the degree of “suffering” and powerlessness will diminish and people will have less need for religion.  The following chart plots a measure of religiosity versus national per capita GDP (income).

This data does support the notion that increased wealth will lead to decreased need for religion.  Note, however, that there are two distinct outliers from the general trend: China and the United States.  China has long discouraged organized religions so its low ranking might not be surprising.  Payne refers to the United States as the most unequal of the wealthier nations.  Would inequality possess an equivalence to low wealth in terms of social dynamics?

“After accounting for the difference between communist and noncommunist countries, China was no longer an outlier.  Even more important, though, was the role of income inequality.  Highly unequal countries were much more religious than more equal ones.  The effects of inequality were huge, and about as large as the effects of actual income.  Once the data were plotted to show the relationship between religion and income inequality (rather than average income), the United States was no longer an outlier but fell right along the line where it would be expected to be, high in both inequality and religiosity.  Poverty and inequality together can explain the bulk of the differences across countries in religiosity.”

To the scientifically minded who like to argue  with religious believers about logical or historical inconsistencies within their belief systems, this scientific data should be telling them that they are wasting their time.  The data suggests that people are attracted to religion not by dogma, but by the alleviation of the social needs it provides.

Payne provides convincing arguments that poverty and inequality are related in the way they affect human social responses.  Both are bad. 

The interested reader might find the following article informative:

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