Why the human brain dislikes income inequality

New study explains why both rich and poor dislike inequality.

There's a fascinating new study out which finds that the human brain is hard-wired to dislike income inequality. A team of scientists from the California Institute of Technology and Trinity College Dublin have discovered that "the reward centres in the human brain respond more strongly when a poor person receives a financial reward than when a rich person does".

Perhaps most significantly, they found that this pattern of activity holds true even if the relevant brain is that of a rich person, rather than a poor person. As one of the scientists, Colin Camerer, explains:

In the experiment, people who started out rich had a stronger reaction to other people getting money than to themselves getting money. In other words, their brains liked it when others got money more than they liked it when they themselves got money.

This reponse is not motivated by pure altruism (something that basic evolutionary studies have shown to be impossible) but self-interest: the rich take pleasure in others receiving money as it reduces their guilt over having more than others. It's an apt reminder of the New Labour maxim that self-interest and the common good go hand-in-hand.

In light of these findings, it is perhaps not surprising that egalitarian societies such as Denmark, Finland and Sweden are among the world's happiest countries and, conversely, that highly unequal societies are among the world's unhappiest.

David Cameron is fond of citing the book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, which makes just this point, and of going on to insist that conservative means can produce progressive ends. But it's hard to see how his decision to prioritise an inheritance-tax cut for the richest 3,000 estates does anything to support this claim.

This latest study offers further proof, if needed, that Britain will become a more unequal and unhappy country if the Tories win.

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Creative Commons
Show Hide image

No, Christopher Hitchens did not convert to Christianity on his deathbed

From Mother Theresa to Princess Diana, for Hitchens, there were no sacred cows. He certainly would not have wanted to become one. 

The suggestion that atheist writer Christopher Hitchens converted on his deathbed was inevitable. When the evangelical Christian Larry Taunton appeared on Newsnight last week to discuss his new book, he suggested that “the Hitch” was “contemplating conversion” in his final days. The collective sigh from his fans was palpable.

That particular claim is uncontroversial. Of course Hitchens “contemplated” Christianity – to say so simply suggests he had an open mind. However, the book goes further, and claims that Hitchens began to doubt his convictions in his final days. Taunton writes that: “Publicly, he had to play the part, to pose, as a confident atheist. In private, he was entering forbidden territory, crossing enemy lines, exploring what he had ignored or misrepresented for so long.” The book is littered with similar insinuations that he was, so to speak, losing his faith. His close friends, those he wasn’t paid to spend time with as he was with Taunton, deny this completely.

Naturally, the book has sparked a host of rumours and junk articles that suggest he converted. Not one to let a cheap shot slide or leave an insinuation untouched, Hitchens was forward-thinking enough to not only predict these accusations, but deliver a perfect pre-buttal. When Anderson Cooper asked him, a short while before his death, whether he had reconsidered “hedging his bets”, he responded:

“If that comes it will be when I’m very ill, when I’m half demented either by drugs or by pain when I won’t have control over what I say. I mention this in case you ever hear a rumour later on, because these things happen and the faithful love to spread these rumours.”

If that isn’t enough, however, his wife has made clear in the strongest possible terms that talk of a softening on Christianity and a deathbed conversion is entirely untrue. “That never happened. He lived by his principles until the end. To be honest, the subject of God didn’t come up.”

The spreading of fallacious rumours of deathbed conversions by the religious is predictable because there is so much historical precedent for it. Many of history’s most famous atheists have suffered this fate, so, in a sense, Hitch has now been inducted into this hall of infamy alongside the likes of Darwin, Thomas Paine, and David Hume. In God is not Great, he wrote that “the mere fact that such deathbed ‘repentances’ were sought by the godly, let alone subsequently fabricated, speaks volumes of the bad faith of the faith-based.”

Now, not for the first time, Hitchens has fallen foul of this bad faith. After all, what can be more abhorrent than baying for a man to abandon his lifelong principles when he is at his most vulnerable, and spreading callous lies when he can no longer respond? It speaks for the complete lack of confidence these people must have in their beliefs that they strike when the individual is at their least lucid and most desperate.

Hitchens felt the bitter end of the religious stick when he was dying as well, and he responded with typical wit and good humour. He was told that it was “God’s curse that he would have cancer near his throat because that was the organ (he) used to blaspheme.” His response? “Well, I’ve used many other organs to blaspheme as well if it comes to that.” One suspects that he would have rubbished recent talk in a similarly sardonic fashion.

Likewise, for a man who was not afraid of a provocative title himself (see: The Missionary Position, No One Left to Lie to) it would be reasonable to think he’d accept his own life as fair game. From Mother Theresa to Princess Diana, for Hitchens, there were no sacred cows. He certainly would not have wanted to become one.

Fortunately, we are blessed with the wonders of the internet, and Hitchens can respond to these claims as Thomas Paine and David Hume could not – from the grave. His prediction and preparation for this speaks of an intellect like no other. In a posthumous debate he still wins out.