Money and Status Fever in an Unequal World
We are often told that the world is becoming increasingly unequal. This is largely true. Today, the wealthiest 1% own nearly twice as much wealth as the rest, while over 820 million people still suffer from hunger. It is no wonder that United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres lamented the situation, stating that "billionaires joyriding to space while millions go hungry on Earth."
So, how does the gap between the rich and the poor affect people's psychology? Do people in an unequal society become more envious of the conspicuously affluent lifestyle of the rich, driving them to seek wealth and status more frantically? Or do they feel that this gap is too large to cross, leaving them without hope to attain wealth and status?
A crucial factor to consider here is people's position on the social ladder. This is because when the wealth gap is large, then it is possible that people from lower social class backgrounds (the poor) might feel more anxious since they have fewer resources to buffer the negative consequences of inequality. In contrast, people from higher social class backgrounds (the rich) might feel relatively secure due to their abundant resources, allowing them to avoid most inconveniences caused by inequality. As a result, the desire for wealth and status among the poor (rather than the rich) might increase to a greater extent in the face of higher inequality.
However, it is also possible that in an unequal society, the poor might feel futile in their struggle for a better life, leading them to give up their pursuit of wealth and status, whereas the rich might recognize the importance of wealth and status to their identity and well-being and feel the fear of falling from their privileged position. If this were true, then it should be the rich (rather than the poor) to have a greater desire for wealth and status in the context of elevated levels of economic inequality.
Intrigued by these questions, together with Jolanda Jetten and Niklas Steffens from The University of Queensland, I conducted studies to investigate the impact of economic inequality on people's desire for wealth and status. First, we devised a study where we manipulated people's perceived inequality. Participants were invited to start a new life in a fictitious society named "Bimboola," consisting of three income groups. Some participants were in the high-inequality condition, where the income differences between the three groups were large, meaning the low-, middle-, and high-income groups earned 3,000, 40,000, and 77,000 dollars a year. In contrast, in the low-inequality condition there were only modest income differences of 30,000, 40,000, and 50,000 dollars a year in the three income groups. Notably, in both conditions, participants were assigned to the middle-income group earning the same 40,000 dollars a year. Participants then completed tasks (i.e., choosing a house, a car, and a vacation) aiming to strengthen their experience of high (or low) inequality. Namely, participants were asked to choose a house to live in, a means of transport, and a vacation destination and they were allowed to choose items only that their group (that is, the middle-income group) could afford. In both conditions, the choices for the middle-income group were identical (ordinary houses, cars, and vacation options). However, in the high-inequality condition, the choices for the high-income group were significantly superior (palace-like mansions, luxurious sports cars, and expensive vacations), whereas the choices for the low-income group were significantly inferior (run-down shelters, rusty bicycles, and no vacation). In contrast, in the low-inequality condition, compared with choices for the middle-income group, choices for the high-income group were only slightly better, and choices for the low-income group were only slightly worse.
Afterwards, participants answered questions about their desire for wealth and status. We found that participants in the high-inequality condition had a heightened desire for wealth and status compared to those in the low-inequality condition.
To extend these findings, we then analyzed data from the real world—the World Values Survey dataset comprising over 141,000 participants across 73 countries and regions. Consistent with the findings from the first study, we found that in societies with a higher Gini coefficient (an objective index of economic inequality), people reported a greater desire for wealth and status. Moreover, this "higher inequality–heightened desire" link was stronger among people from lower than higher social class backgrounds.
To further examine how people's desire for wealth and status was related to social class in the context of economic inequality, in our next study we simultaneously manipulated both perceived inequality and social class. Participants were invited to start a new life in a fictitious world consisting of six countries, each with three groups differing in wealth. Participants were assigned to either the most unequal or the most equal country and then to either the wealthiest or the poorest group within that country. We also tried to distinguish the nature of people's desire for wealth and status, namely, whether they sought wealth and status by acquiring (a) "more than I have" or (b) "more than other people." We found that the effect of inequality on desire for "personal" wealth and status ("more than I have") was stronger among the lower class, whereas the effect on desire for "social" wealth and status ("more than other people") was stronger among the upper class.
In a world with rising inequality, our research helps explain people's concerns about material means and their anxieties about status. We believe that higher inequality creates an environment of restlessness in which both the poor and the rich feel compelled to seek more wealth and status, but for different reasons. For the poor, their heightened desire for wealth and status by acquiring "more than I have" indicates self-improvement and pragmatic concerns, such as to avoid "going hungry." However, for the rich, their heightened desire for wealth and status by acquiring "more than other people" reflects social comparison and showing-off concerns, such as to afford "joyriding to space." Overall, higher inequality triggers a money and status fever in everyone, leading to psychological consequences, such as prioritizing wealth and status over other aspects like family and leisure time, and also physical stress, such as working overtime to accumulate wealth and status.
For Further Reading
Wang, Z., Jetten, J., & Steffens, N. K. (2023). Restless in an unequal world: Economic inequality fuels the desire for wealth and status. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 49(6), 871–890. https://doi.org/10.1177/01461672221083747
Wang, Z., Jetten, J., & Steffens, N. K. (2020). The more you have, the more you want? Higher social class predicts a greater desire for wealth and status. European Journal of Social Psychology, 50, 360-375. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.2620
Walasek, L., & Brown, G. D. A. (2019). Income inequality and social status: The social rank and material rank hypotheses. In The Social Psychology of Inequality (pp. 235–248). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-28856-3_15
Zhechen Wang is an Associate Research Fellow in the School of Social Development and Public Policy at Fudan University (China). His research focuses on the study of social class, economic inequality, and motivation.
Jolanda Jetten is an ARC Laureate Fellowship and Professor in the School of Psychology at University of Queensland (Australia). Her research focuses on the social psychology of inequality, conspiracy beliefs, and identity change.
Niklas Steffens is a DECRA research fellow and Associate Professor in the School of Psychology at University of Queensland (Australia). His research focuses on the social psychology of leadership, group processes, and identity change.