Psychology Behind Inequality

Psychology Behind Inequality


Conversations about inequality in the present world, as you may have seen, are taking a gradual surge in different political, economic and social dimensions. These talks have always been an ingrained part of society. Once merely hushed whispers, they have now become audible chants, demanding equality in present-day politics and society.

What is Inequality? 

Inequality is an unequal distribution in any given system and can take social, economic, political, etc., domains. It can simply be a difference between the amount of land dominated by a particular group and can be as grave as an escalation of that domination into withholding basic services, punishing growth, and imposing harsh conditions on the minority group and worse, wars. 

Inequality vs Inequity 

The term inequality is interchangeably used with inequity. Inequity is unnecessary differences that are avoidable but exist with unjust and unfair tendencies. Not all inequalities are unjust, but all inequities are the product of unjust inequalities. For example, a difference in income between two people due to one working more hours than the other is an inequality, but not necessarily unjust. However, if two people are paid differently for the same job due to their gender or race, this constitutes an inequity, as it arises from unjust inequalities.

Read More: How Culture Shapes Mental Health and Influences Our Well-being

Types of Inequalities 

Day in and day out people and institutions are treated unfairly and robbed of various opportunities on the grounds of economic, political, social and cultural backgrounds. The prevalence of inequality in society presents itself in the form of 

  • Income inequalities: Income inequality refers to the uneven distribution of income throughout a population. Income levels are usually studied through taxation records and various historical documents. For example, if the top 10% of a population earns 50% of the total income while the bottom 50% earns only 10%, this illustrates significant income inequality.
  • Status Inequalities: These Inequalities are a helping extension of economic inequalities. It involves inequality of status, based on poor and rich which correlates to the amount of respect a person is treated with. For example, in many societies, wealthy individuals often enjoy higher social status and greater respect, while those who are poor may face social stigmatization and disrespect.
  • Political Inequalities: The topic of political inequality has caught the attention of many scholars in the modern world. Political inequality is the differences in citizens’ ability to influence political processes using a choice of the vote, how they vote and whether the policies made by the politicians favour one group over another. For instance, if wealthier individuals or groups have more access to political influence through campaign contributions or lobbying, they can shape policies to their advantage, thereby perpetuating political inequality.
  • Gender Inequalities: When in a given society people are treated unequally based on their gender due to gender discrimination or sexism various forms of gender inequalities mark themselves in the society. For example, women may receive lower wages than men for the same work, face barriers to career advancement, or have limited access to education and healthcare.
  • Sexual Orientation and Inequality: The LGBTQ+ community continues to experience many types of problems. When unequal treatment is subjected towards individuals with varied sexual and romantic preferences deterring from normative heterosexuality and becomes a significant source of social inequality. 
  • Racial and ethnic: When individuals are prejudiced against their race or ethnic background through social or political systems it takes the form of racism and racial and ethnic inequality in society.

The Psychology Behind Inequality 

To understand the birthing of inequality, psychologists and scholars have intensively worked to explore and navigate answers. They study the cognitive formulation of stereotypes and the behavioural projection of discriminatory behaviour. Inequality is influenced by social forces, evolutionary factors, and individual experiences. Following are a few prominent theories that might explain the formation and maintenance of inequality in society. 

Social Dominance Theory 

This theory explains how social hierarchies with one group dominant with status and power are formed in human societies and maintained through legitimizing myths. These myths provide moral and intellectual justifications for group-based oppression and social inequality. A typical example can be the meritocratic ideology which attributes status differences to individual talents and efforts, but people often judge individuals based on their group membership, leading to blame and negative attitudes toward disadvantaged groups. 

Frustration Aggression Hypothesis 

In 1939, John Dollard and his colleagues introduced the frustration-aggression hypothesis, which stated that aggression arises from frustration, and frustration leads to aggression. However, in some cases, the agent of frustration is undefined or inaccessible and this leads to displacement of aggression onto alternative targets. These targets are often in the form of scapegoats. The frustration-aggression hypothesis was primarily developed to explain intergroup aggression, when a group is frustrated by a more powerful or remote group, aggression is displaced onto a weaker group acting as a scapegoat.

Read More: The Psychology behind Scapegoating

Authoritarian Personality 

The Authoritarian Personality, written by Theodor Adorno and Else Frenkel-Brunswik in 1950, discussed a personality syndrome that they believed predisposed certain individuals to be authoritarian. They proposed that strict and punitive child-rearing practices resulted in the development of various beliefs in adulthood, including ethnocentrism, intolerance of minorities, and conservative attitudes.

The theory was accompanied by a scale known as the California F-scale, initially created to measure fascist tendencies but later used as a general measure of authoritarianism. However, there are limitations to explaining prejudice solely through personality factors, as situational and sociocultural factors play a crucial role. 

Dogmatism and Closed-Mindedness 

Milton Rokeach proposed another approach to prejudice related to the authoritarian personality theory. He focused on dogmatism or closed-mindedness. It is characterized by the isolation of contradictory belief systems, resistance to belief change, and reliance on authority to justify existing beliefs. He created scales to measure these personality styles. They have a good reliability and correlation with measures of authoritarianism. However, the concept of dogmatism has limitations similar to the authoritarian personality theory as it reduces prejudice to individual personality predispositions and overlooks the sociocultural context and group norms. 

Belief Congruence Theory 

Belief congruence theory, proposed by Rokeach in 1960, suggests that congruence or similarity in belief systems between individuals leads to positive attitudes and attraction, while incongruence produces negative attitudes. Research using this paradigm has shown that belief is a more important determinant of attitude than race. However, when it comes to more intimate behaviour like friendship, race becomes more important. However, it excludes circumstances where prejudice is institutionalized or socially sanctioned. Also, categorization and group membership appear to play a stronger role in shaping attitudes and behaviours. 

Right Wing Authoritarianism 

Bob Altemeyer revived the idea of authoritarianism as a collection of attitudes, with three components: conventionality, authoritarian aggression, and authoritarian submission.

  • Conventionalism: Adherence to societal conventions that are endorsed by established authorities; 
  • Authoritarian aggression: Support for aggression towards social deviants; and
  • Authoritarian submission: Submission to society’s established authorities 

Consequences of Inequality 

The consequences of inequality are pervasive, affecting almost every aspect of society from individual well-being and social relationships to economic stability and political structures. 

  • Psychological Consequences 
    • Individuals at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum are more likely to experience stress, anxiety, and depression due to financial instability and perceived social injustice.
    • It can impact individuals’ self-esteem and sense of identity. They might internalize negative stereotypes and experience feelings of inferiority or worthlessness. 
  • Social and Interpersonal Consequences 
    • High levels of inequality can erode trust within a society, leading to lower levels of social cohesion and cooperation. People in unequal societies may be less likely to trust each other and more likely to engage in antisocial behaviour. 
    • It often exacerbates tensions between different social, ethnic, or economic groups. This can lead to increased prejudice, discrimination, and social conflict. 
  • Political Consequences 
    • Inequality affects political engagement and representation. Disadvantaged groups are less likely to participate in political processes, leading to policies that favour the interests of the wealthy and perpetuate the cycle of inequality. 
    • Perceived inequality can undermine the legitimacy of political and social institutions. If people believe that the system is unfair and rigged against them, they may lose faith in democratic processes and institutions. 
  • Economic Consequences 
    • While some degree of inequality can incentivize productivity and innovation, excessive inequality can stifle economic growth by limiting access to education, health care, and other resources necessary for individuals to contribute effectively to the economy. 
    • High levels of inequality reduce social mobility, making it difficult for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds to improve their economic status. This creates a rigid class structure where wealth and opportunities are concentrated among the elite. 
  • Health Consequences 
    • Inequality is strongly associated with disparities in physical health outcomes. Poorer individuals often have limited access to health care, nutritious food, and safe living conditions, leading to higher rates of chronic diseases and lower life expectancy.
    • Societal inequality can also impact public health more broadly. For example, communities with high inequality may experience higher rates of violence and crime, which have further detrimental effects on public health. 
  • Cultural Consequences 
    • Inequality can shape cultural norms and values, often justifying the status quo through ideologies that rationalize the existence of social hierarchies. This can perpetuate stereotypes and legitimise myths that reinforce and maintain inequality. 
    • Social Capital: Inequality impacts the distribution of social capital. Those with fewer resources have less access to networks and opportunities that can help them succeed, further entrenching social divisions. 

Inequality and Mobility 

It is crucial to develop strategies to address and mitigate the negative impacts of inequality and foster an Inclusive worldview of the individuals of the society. A few strategies to mitigate social inequalities can be 

  • Encouraging companies to adopt diversity and inclusion policies 
  • Supporting advocacy groups and social movements that fight for social justice and equality can lead to systemic changes 
  • Promoting political engagement and representation of marginalized groups
  • Implementing training programs to raise awareness about implicit biases and promoting inclusive practices within organizations 
  • Enforcing and strengthening laws against discrimination 
  • Strengthening social safety nets, including unemployment benefits, healthcare, and social security 
  • vocational training opportunities can help individuals adapt to changing job markets and improve their economic prospects 
  • A progressive tax system can redistribute wealth more fairly 
  • Raising the minimum wage and ensuring strong labor protections 

Read More: Mental Health Support for Marginalized Communities

Addressing inequality involves implementing policies that promote diversity, inclusion, and equal opportunities. Ensuring fair access to education, healthcare, and political participation helps empower marginalized groups. Strengthening social safety nets and enforcing anti-discrimination laws are crucial steps toward a more just and equitable society, where everyone can thrive.

References +
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  •, accessed 4 June 2024. 6. Ansell, B. and Gingrich, J. (2022), ‘Political inequality’, IFS Deaton Review of Inequalities, 
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  • [Author removed at request of original publisher] (2016) 5.3 inequality based on sexual orientation, Social Problems. Available at: on/ (Accessed: 04 June 2024). 
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  • Costa-Lopes, R., Dovidio, J. F., Pereira, C. R., & Jost, J. T. (Eds.). (2023). Social psychological perspectives on the legitimation of social inequality: Past, present and future. Routledge.

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