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  1. Politics
3 March 2010

Why the human brain dislikes income inequality

New study explains why both rich and poor dislike inequality.

By George Eaton

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.

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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.

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