How a post-pandemic world is thinking about fairness
There seems to be a rash of films critical of wealthy lifestyles: we consider cost-of-living rises may be sparking challenges to notions of fairness
We have long been fascinated by the lives of the wealthy, with reality TV shows such as The Kardashians catering for our interests; these have typically been highly aspirational, spawning widespread fashion and lifestyle trends. But more recently there has been a host of TV programmes and films which detail the lives of the wealthy but in less flattering ways. Films and TV shows such as Parasite and White Lotus have shown another side to wealth, showing a life that looks decidedly unattractive.
All too often behavioural science is used to examine the behaviours of ‘the general population’ and, perhaps for good reason, often focuses on groups in the population that have much less power – such as those in financially vulnerable positions. But the behaviours of the wealthy should also be scrutinised given this is a group that has significant influence alongside being responsible for a disproportionate amount of carbon emissions (see figure below from this paper).
So first, what do we know about the behaviours of this group but, perhaps as importantly, why are we focussing on them now? The recent range of films critical of wealthy lifestyles has spawned a great deal of debate about what this signifies about our collective mindset. Given this, it is a useful avenue for us to unpack the behavioural dimensions that might be shaping these changing dynamics.
As we know, money does not equal happiness
There is a wide range of studies that suggest the unflattering behaviours of the wealthy as shown in TV shows and films do have a basis in reality. For example, one study found that drivers of luxury cars gave pedestrians the right of way three times less frequently than those driving cheap vehicles; wealthy car drivers were also four times more likely to drive rashly and cut off others on the road. In another study wealthy people were found to be less likely to help a person in distress albeit this effect was cancelled out after being shown a video about child poverty. As such this suggests anti-social or unsympathetic behaviour is not inevitable, but the effects of the environment inhabited.
This group are also likely to have mental health issues with process addictions such as gambling, sex and eating, which often come with having an obsessive relationship with money. In addition, extremely rich people are at a higher risk of depression, as wealth can perpetuate a soulless need to acquire more. This has also been linked to lower relationship satisfaction.
And in the midst of the discussion of ‘Nepo babies’, it seems that the children of the wealthy are adversely impacted with, for example, vulnerability to substance abuse in no small part likely due to feeling pressed to excel at multiple academic and extracurricular pursuits.
But did we not know this already?
With all this in mind, we might ask why the popular culture spotlight is now being focused on this group of citizens. The obvious explanation here is the impact of the increases in the cost-of-living. We are seeing vast swathes of the population suffering the effects of high prices impacting millions of poorer households who are experiencing ‘heat or eat’ dilemmas. And middle-income households are also facing considerable stress with increases across the board on energy bills, mortgage costs and personal taxes.
In this context, it is little wonder then that we may be reaching a tipping point in terms of the way in which people evaluate the fairness of their situation. With the starkness in difference of financial positions between the wealthy and middling and low income groups, then reference points are easier to identify, more readily allowing people to make comparisons and gauge what is fair or unfair.
The power of fairness
In 1962, the right-of-centre economist Milton Friedman wrote that “in a market society” the way that wealth is distributed “is unlikely to be tolerated unless it is also regarded as yielding distributive justice”. Without a broad public acceptance of such economic arrangements, he went on, “no society can be stable”.
In other words, we need a sense that the way money is shared across society feels fair to us. Indeed, perceptions of ‘distributive justice’ are very powerful: a cross-cultural study by Markus Paulus found that that 6-7-year-old children in South Africa and the United States were more likely to throw out a resource rather than distribute it unequally.
But given we live in a world of great disparity, then how we judge fairness cannot be purely due to equality of distribution. This is where ‘procedural justice’, or the fair process effect comes in, so that is we consider that the procedures that determine who gets what are fair, then we are less likely to have a negative reactions to an outcomes where we have less than others.
Arguably, as we have set out previously, the dominant view in society has been that our ‘merit’ (such as our inherent skills or hard work) determines how some people accrue greater wealth than others. So people who are less wealthy but believe the process for determining this are fair will be more accepting of the outcome. But the flip side of this is that if people start to consider that the process for determining wealth distribution is unfair, then they may start to question the outcome.
Of course, what is ‘fair’ will inevitably be contested ground, influenced by a range of issues. Notably, if an unfavourable outcome is central to a person’s identity (such as their standard of living) then this can lead to the person looking for ways in which the process was unfair. So in these cases, judgments about whether the process and outcome are fair are determined more by whether the outcome was favourable than whether the procedure was objectively fair.
Implications for behaviour
On this basis, when we have millions of people that have previously been reasonably well-off, or at least just about managing, find themselves in a position of financial hardship, then this will not only have implications for the way people evaluate the fairness of their position but also, importantly, the perceived fairness of the processes that led to it.
There has been an erosion of wealth in younger age groups with Millennials having to absorb, for example, much higher childcare and housing costs compared to their older Boomer counterparts. As such we might expect this group to perhaps question ‘distributive justice’ but also given their poor outcomes this might result in challenges to the process that led to this.
An inkling this might be the case is perhaps reflected in what appear to be systemic changes in voting behaviour that are ‘challenging the oldest rule in politics:’ people become more conservative with age. Research in the Financial Times, found that if Millennials’ liberal tendencies are simply the result of this age effect, then at age 35 should be around five points less conservative than the national average, and can be relied upon to gradually become more conservative. But today, they are in fact around 15 points less conservative, and in both Britain and the US are by far the least conservative 35-year-olds ever recorded.
As the FT points out:
“The most likely explanation is a cohort effect — that millennials have developed different values to previous generations, shaped by experiences unique to them, and they do not feel conservatives share these.”
Given the rise in cost-of-living has led to many people to have poor outcomes, the ‘fair process effect’ may lead to widespread calls for more fundamental societal and political changes than might perhaps have been anticipated. And concerningly, this reasoning may also help to explain a recent study which suggests an “increase in risk” of civil unrest: of 198 nations worldwide, 101 saw the risk of civil unrest increasing, due to “the impacts of inflation on the price of staple foods and energy.”
“Movies are often a reflection of where we are” says Todd Phillips who directed the film Joker in which alienated, disturbed Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is driven to horrific acts of murder by an uncaring society. With that in mind, we see a world in which what has come to be seen as normal is upturned, as represented by Triangle of Sadness which follows an ultra-rich group of people who get stranded on an island after their luxury cruise ship sinks and a cleaning woman emerges as the competent leader.
And of course it is not just in the arts where we are seeing these extraordinary twists and turns. A recent report from investment firm Morgan Stanley, perhaps not an organisation we might expect to suggest radical upturns in society, highlighted the gap between corporate profits and worker wages, suggesting that a rebalance in favour of employees was needed.
Throughout history pandemics have heralded significant political, social and cultural change. The (arguably) pandemic-related changes we are today seeing in the economy may well be heralding ‘behavioural disruption,’ with the possibility of fundamental changes in the way we evaluate what fairness looks like and ways we should be working to achieve it in today’s world.
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