Many commentators have pointed to disturbances in Ferguson and elsewhere over the past year as proof that economic inequality leads to tensions and even violence. But new research out from Yale University suggests that it’s not the presence of inequality that causes problems, but rather the visibility of that inequality.
“Making wealth visible was a very corrosive force. It resulted in the rich exploiting the poor,” said Nicholas A. Christakis, the co-director of Yale Institute for Network Science and one of the senior authors of the study. When wealthy people find out that their neighbors don’t have the resources they do, researchers find, they’re less likely to help them, or anyone else.
The study provided a deep dive into human behavior and wealth via software that allowed researchers to create virtual temporary societies over which they had “God-like” control, Christakis told me. The societies consist of real people, playing for real stakes.
In this instance, researchers grouped together subjects and assigned them arbitrary units of wealth. They were then asked to either cooperate with their neighbors by reducing their own wealth by 50 units in order to increase the wealth of all neighbors by 100 units, or to defect—paying no cost at all and reaping no benefits. After they made that choice, they were allowed to decide whether to stay connected to their same neighbors or not for the next round.