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“Inequality makes societies more antisocial – so we use social media more antisocially than we would in an egalitarian society”

As part of our 25 Calls campaign we interviewed Professor Richard   Wilkinson, co-author of the groundbreaking book The Spirit Level and its 2018 follow-up The Inner Level. In part two of our interview, he discusses the destructive effect inequality has on self-esteem, and through this, mental health.

CiS: Moving on to the themes in The Inner Level about mental health, Children in Scotland has a young people’s advisory group who advise us on what our priorities should be. As part of our 25 Calls project, we asked them what their number one call would be for change, and they said, “we want better, faster, equal access to mental health support”. I’m interested in your perspective in what’s changed to produce access to mental health support and services as something so urgently prioritised in this way by children and young people.

RW: Perhaps even more important than more services is to ask what is driving the rise in mental health issues – not only amongst the young but among the population as a whole. It’s been clear for a generation or so that there has been a rise in mental illness. It’s obviously particularly alarming when you look at the measures amongst young people. It’s extraordinary how in the media discussion of the various reports that have come out recently regarding the scale of mental health issues they’ve talked almost wholly about access to services, without thinking that services can only pick up the pieces of broken lives. It’s not services that decide whether there’s a rise or fall in mental illnesses. When occasionally people do discuss the causes, they often suggest it’s social media. But in a way, social media is just a messenger. To blame the form of communication is a bit like saying that the more we communicate with each other the worse results will be, which is actually the opposite of what I believe.

I think that what actually happens is that inequality makes societies more antisocial in all sorts of different ways and we come to use social media more antisocially than we would in an egalitarian society. Just as bullying increases with inequality so the use of social media for bullying increases – sometimes even reducing people to self-harm or suicide.

'Now that there are no longer settled communities in which people grew up among those they knew all their lives, we are left living in atomised societies trying to create a good impression on hundreds of new people all the time'

Key to these problems is the enormous importance of social comparisons. Kids feeling that they have to be perfect, that they’re regarded as not clever enough, not funny enough, not pretty enough, all those sorts of things. People judging themselves, or imagining other people’s negative judgements of them. Now that there are no longer settled communities in which people grew up among those they knew all their lives, we are left living in atomised societies trying to create a good impression on hundreds of new people all the time. That raises the stakes on social comparisons because it exposes us more. Inequality exacerbates the situation by increasing the impression that some people are worth much more than others, so we allfeel more insecure about our own self-worth.

I think that inequality might be easier to tolerate if we had a pre-industrial village society without geographic mobility. The modern anonymous society makes greater equality much more important. People withdraw from social contact because of the anxieties and the worries about how they’re seen and judged. Social anxieties are often key to depression and self-harm. We also describe in our book another apparently opposite response to increased worries about what psychologists call “the social evaluative threat” – our worries about how we are seen and judged. Instead of withdrawing from social life, people flaunt their abilities and achievements instead of being modest about them. They talk themselves up, trying to big themselves up in others’ eyes. Instead of being modest about their achievements and abilities they find ways of bringing them into the conversation – they went to such a good university, or they got promoted very young, or are successful enough to have long-haul holidays the other side of the world. Consumerism is part of this. It’s the simplest way in which we try and communicate our self-worth to other people.

'We’re highly sensitised to status issues. For instance, the reason why violence becomes so much more common in more unequal societies is because it’s triggered by people feeling disrespected and looked down on'

Projecting the right image is about the clothes, the phone and, as you get into adult life, the car you drive and what part of town you live in. What inequality does is make status and class more important, it ups the stakes on the idea that some people are worth much more than others, endlessly raising the issue of “what am I worth? What do people think of me? Where do I come in the pecking order?”

I think if we live in a society that is very unequal that kind of environment almost programmes us to pay more attention to social comparisons. If you think of our evolutionary past, it’s crucially important to have as high a position in the ranking stakes as possible. Males don’t get access to females if they’re low ranking. And subordinates don’t get food unless there’s food left over after the dominants have had their fill. So if we find ourselves in a very unequal world, we are primed to react to it. We’re highly sensitised to status issues. For instance, the reason why violence becomes so much more common in more unequal societies is because it’s triggered by people feeling disrespected and looked down on; a loss of face. Someone denied status seems to feel that there’s one way he can make you respect him if you won’t any other way, and that’s through violence. Violence goes up because of those feelings trigger violence, and inequality makes people more status conscious.

However, as well as having evolved to be highly sensitive to status issues in hierarchical societies, human beings also have the basis for a very different pattern of social relations. We spent our prehistoric existence in highly egalitarian hunting and gathering societies where we developed a quite different set of social strategies to do with relationships based on friendship, equality, mutuality and reciprocity. We know how to conduct those kind of social relations, too. Which strategy we choose depends on the kind of social environment we find ourselves in. We can be pretty nice to each other or pretty awful.

Read part 3 of the interview.

Read part 1 of the interview.

Richard Wilkinson is Professor Emeritus of Social Epidemiology at the University of Nottingham, Honorary Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London and Visiting Professor at University of York. He co-founded The Equality Trust with Kate Pickett.

The Inner Level is published by Penguin.

Interview by Chris Small. Edited by Morgaine Das Varma.

 

About the interviewee

Co-author of 'The Spirit Level', Richard Wilkinson is a world renowned expert on inequality

Find out more

Read part one of the interview

Our interview with Professor Richard Wilkinson is shared over 6 parts.

Read part one

25 Calls campaign

Professor Wilkinson contributed context and analysis to Call 2, on tackling child poverty

Read the call