Hidden Factors In Your Brain Help To Shape Beliefs On Income Inequality
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Income inequality - it has become one of the themes in this year's presidential election. New social science research suggests that the way you think about this issue might be shaped by some hidden factors in your brain - and also by whether you've been drinking. NPR's social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam, is here to explain. Hey, Shankar.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: All right, income inequality, hidden biases and drinking - this is going to be good.
VEDANTAM: Well, it is going to be good. And I'm going to take you out in a second to a bar in Lawrence, Kan., David.
GREENE: Oh, good - I was hoping for that.
VEDANTAM: But first, I need to explain the context of the new research. A basic idea in human development is that the things we learn early on in life stick in the brain. Now, that's true whether you're talking about languages you learn or patterns and behavior.
GREENE: Or you learn to ski. And, I mean, people seem to learn to ski much better when they're younger.
VEDANTAM: Exactly. Now, new research applies this idea to our attitudes toward fairness. When you think about it, most of our early relationships - parent-child or student-teacher - these are hierarchical relationships. As we grow older, we learn to think of relationships in more egalitarian terms. But if you buy the idea that the things we learn first stick in the brain, that means that hierarchical ways of thinking are primary because we learn to think that way first. I was speaking with Laura Van Berkel. She's a graduate student in social psychology at the University of Kansas. Here's how she put it to me.
LAURA VAN BERKEL: We learn hierarchies and think about hierarchies for a long time before we really begin to develop egalitarian attitudes. So even though we might like egalitarianism more as we develop, we still have that initial preference for hierarchy.
GREENE: So it's not a democracy when you're young. You either have a parent or teacher literally giving you instructions, telling you what to do, and you're sort of mind gets used to that. And then those things stick there.
VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. And when you think about how this applies to public policy, if income inequality bothers you, it's really because you want a more egalitarian world. If it doesn't bother you, it's probably because you're OK with there being high-status and low-status people - with there being hierarchies. Van Berkel's theory is that for many of us, hierarchical thinking comes more easily and automatically, whereas egalitarian thinking requires more effort, so just like speaking your first language comes more naturally to you than speaking a second language.
GREENE: And so in a way, it would be more natural for you to not care if there's a lot of inequality. It takes effort for you to think about, like, I want there to be fairness. I think I get that. So how does drinking come into play here?
VEDANTAM: That's a good question, David. To test whether egalitarian thinking is secondary in the brain to hierarchical thinking, Van Berkel hit up on an ingenious idea. When people are drunk, they often reveal hidden attitudes because alcohol tends to make people feel disinhibited. That led Van Berkel and her colleagues to run an experiment.
VAN BERKEL: We stood outside bars in downtown Lawrence, Kan., and people that agreed to participate answered our survey questions about how much they liked hierarchy and equality. And they blew into a breathalyzer. The higher people's blood alcohol content - or the more drunk they were - the more they liked hierarchy and power.
VEDANTAM: One important thing to point out, David, is that people's ideologies did not affect the outcome. Both liberals and conservatives endorsed hierarchies when they were drunk. And the drunker they got, the more they stepped away from egalitarianism.
GREENE: OK, so you're drunk. You're not making as much effort because you can't, and you're also sort of resorting to kind of natural, child-like feelings.
VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. Now, it's also possible that for some reason, people who endorse hierarchical thinking are also more likely to get drunk. So this is a correlation that the researchers are finding. To further test that conclusion, they conducted several other experiments. When people are distracted or under time pressure, they also tend to fall back on primary ways of thinking. Again, in these experiments volunteers tend to support hierarchical systems. So when volunteers are asked to divide resources in a game, for example, people given less time to think about it are more likely to divide the money unfairly and to endorse existing hierarchies. So the bottom line, David - if you want people to endorse hierarchical thinking, put them under time pressure or just get them drunk.
GREENE: Shankar, thanks for coming in, as always.
VEDANTAM: Happy to be here, David.
GREENE: Shankar Vedantam is NPR's social science correspondent. He is also the host of the new podcast that explores the unseen patterns in human behavior. It is called Hidden Brain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.