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Why Nobody Feels Rich: The Psychology Of Inequality

Social psychologist Keith Payne says we have a bias toward comparing ourselves to people who have more than us, rather than those who have less
Marcus Butt
Getty Images/Ikon Images
Social psychologist Keith Payne says we have a bias toward comparing ourselves to people who have more than us, rather than those who have less

When Keith Payne was in the fourth grade, he realized he was poor. The epiphany came to him in the cafeteria.

"We had a new cashier in the line that day," he said. "And when I got to the cashier's desk she asked me for, I think it was $1.25. That was the first time that anybody had ever asked me to pay for my lunch because I'd always been on free lunch."

Keith had been blissfully unaware that many of his classmates were paying for their meals every day. But now, he began comparing himself with his peers.

"It's not like I was poorer the day after that than I was before. Nothing objective had changed. But because of that subjective awareness, now everything seemed different to me."

Keith Payne is now a social psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He's the author of The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die. He says it's human nature to compare ourselves to others. But that instinct can cause psychological stress.

"We think about ourselves in terms of being on a certain rung with some people above us, and other people below us. Where we think we stand on that ladder tells you a lot about a person's life and their life outcomes."

This week on Hidden Brain, we explore the psychology of inequality.

Additional Resources:

" Physical and situational inequality on airplanes predicts air rage," by Katherine A. DeCellesa and Michael I. Norton, 2016

" Income inequality, poverty and crime across nations," by Paul-Phillipe Pare and Richard Felson, 2014

" The performance effects of pay dispersion on individuals and organizations," by Matt Bloom, 1999

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Parth Shah is an associate producer at Hidden Brain. He came to NPR in 2016 as a Kroc Fellow.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Rhaina Cohen is a producer and editor for NPR's Enterprise Storytelling unit, working across Embedded, Invisibilia, and Rough Translation.