In that post, I hinted more at certain structural inequalities that might enable only specific individuals to take advantage of social and economic opportunities, even though official policy extends those opportunities to everyone.
While that post was essentially a rant, the truth is that there are serious consequences to such a misconception being widespread. That serious consequence is diminished public support for policies that specifically target underprivileged populations - be it lower taxes or greater welfare assistance (education, health, or other public services).
Many people in this country are opposed to spending more on welfare assistance for certain sections of society. The argument often is that "we have done enough". The flaw in this argument is that objectively defining "enough" is very, very difficult. It requires having great clarity upon the matter of what exactly these sections of society are lacking.
An individual may not want to pay higher taxes to provide more welfare services to certain others.... but that individual cannot justify their preference by assuming that "enough" occurs exactly at that point when paying taxes pinches one's pocket.
- That is not a fair, logical and accurate evaluation of what constitutes "enough"; it is subjective, varies from person to person, and as such, is baseless an argument.
Let us come back to the question of what constitutes sufficient assistance to underprivileged social groups.
- The central problem is that giving everyone economic opportunities does not ensure that everyone will be able to use those opportunities as best they could. The simple explanation for this is that not everyone has had access to the cultural conditioning, education and various other socioeconomic privileges that allow someone to exploit - or even identify - the opportunities around them.
- Giving everyone "equal opportunity" in a legal sense does not level the playing field. The playing field is only leveled when everyone has access to the entire set of opportunities that determine their economic decisions.
One of the most interesting research papers I read recently was:
Discrimination, Social Identity, and Durable Inequalities
Karla Hoff and Priyanka Pandey
The American Economic Review
Vol. 96, No. 2, May 2006, pp 206 - 211
The authors of this study wanted to explore how an individual's economic behaviour can be affected by their belief in the sociocultural stereotype of the social group they belong to. For example, if you are poor and white versus poor and black, society assumes different things about you. You are expected to fit a certain mould and behave in a particular way. How do we systematically investigate the effect of such social expectation on actual behaviour? One way would be to conduct behavioral experiments and manipulate conditions under which certain types of behaviour are induced. That is what this study attempted to do.
- Essentially what this study did was to take two groups of sixth and seventh graders from rural India such that some of these kids belonged to a higher social caste while others belonged to a lower social caste.
- Note that "caste" here refers to the very specific sociocultural hierarchy in India that is rigidly adhered to in many parts of the country even today. Further, even when not explicitly adhered to, caste membership has historically had such economic ramifications that much of the economic circumstances you are born into can be determined by the caste of your parents. Hence caste determines social identity and additionally, is a significant determinant of economic class as well.
- For the purposes of translating "caste" into your own culture (should you not be from India or not familiar with its caste system) you can substitute the concept of socioeconomic class, with the specific connotation that birth circumstances determine which class you belong to or are allowed access to. As in, mobility across the classes is not that simple. If that condition is met, then the following experiment can be more or less translated into your (the reader) cultural context as well.
EXPERIMENT # 1 : PROBLEM-SOLVING ABILITY
- The study was conducted in a classroom in a village school. Students were 'tested' six at a time in order to manipulate conditions related to caste identity.
- Next, the researchers did an experiment where they asked these kids to solve maze-based puzzles. The incentive was 1 Rupee per maze. This was not a trivial sum of money given that adults in the region earned an average of 6 Rupees per hour for jobs based on unskilled labour.
- There were 3 different conditions in this experiment. Number of participants = 156
- Condition # 1 : the caste identity of the kids was kept private and not disclosed to the set of participants.
- Condition # 2 : The caste identity of these kids was publicly revealed before the kids were asked to solve the maze puzzles. Further, half the kids in each 6-member group in this experimental condition belonged to a high caste while the other half belonged to the low caste.
- Condition # 3 : The caste identity of these kids was publicly revealed before the kids were asked to solve the maze puzzles.In this case however, each of these 6-member groups was homogeneous, i.e. all kids in this group belonged to the same caste.
- Result : Kids from lower social castes solved significantly fewer puzzles - hence earned significantly less - when their caste identity was publicly revealed. This lowered performance persisted even when their group consisted of only other lower caste kids.
- The effect seems to come from just having their "inferior" social identity be publicly revealed...
- Result : Kids from higher castes did significantly better - hence earned significantly more - when their caste identity was publicly revealed. However, when this revelation was made in the presence of their social equals - other kids from the same high caste - their performance quickly dropped.
- It's as if kids from the higher caste do best in presence of their social "inferiors" when their social dominance is publicly asserted.
Note here that "performance" still refers to how many puzzles these kids are solving.... one might think that puzzle solving ability is an innate ability ... it is a simple mental task and should not be affected by these psychologies stemming from social realities about one's position in the world.... but apparently they are.
The context of this second experiment remained the same. The same researchers, the same part of India, the same caste-related variables, the same study subjects - high school kids.
The goal of this experiment was to investigate whether revealing subjects' caste identities would discourage a subject from betting on his success or his probability of winning a reward.
Experimental set up : The kids were shown how to solve a given puzzle. After about 10 minutes of practice, the kids were asked - in private and individually - to place a bet on the probability of their being able to solve a similar puzzle.
- Payoffs : If a kid accepted the challenge and won, he received 20 Rupees. If he accepted and lost, he received just 1 Rupee. If he did not accept the challenge, he received 10 Rupees.
- Number of subjects : 360
- Condition # 1 : If you play the puzzle right, you can extract your prize money from the apparatus itself. No human being is involved in judging your performance, and your performance is automatically objectively evaluated.
- Condition # 2 : Even if you play the puzzle right, your performance is evaluated by a "judge" - the experimenter. In this condition, kids were told that someone would watch them play and only give them the reward if they played in the right way and followed certain rules (explained to them earlier). So some subjectivity was involved.
- Sub-condition # 1 : Everyone plays anonymously.
- Sub-condition # 2 : Caste identity is publicly revealed.
- Results : There was room for "social bias" when the experimenter was making the judgement call about about whether puzzle solving performance merited the 20 Rupee reward.
- In this condition where there was room for bias, revealing caste identity significantly reduced the number of lower caste kids willing to accept the challenge (and try to get the 20 Rupee reward). Instead, most of the lower caste kids now just went for the 10 Rupee payoff.
- In this condition where there was room for bias, revealing caste identity had little effect on the number of higher caste kids that were willing to accept the challenge (and try to get the 20 Rupee reward).
- Overall, everyone seemed to have a little less faith in the situation where an experimenter would be judging their efforts .... (does this speak to the "trust" factor in Indian civic life?.. other research has addressed this... maybe another time !!) .... but controlling for this, it seemed as if kids from a higher caste had more faith in the experimenter judging in their favour while kids from a lower caste had less faith in the same and preferred the certain 10 Rupee reward to the now very uncertain 20 Rupee reward.
- Speculative bottomline* : The kids in the lower caste group were used to a social context where revealing their caste meant people gave them fewer rewards and judged them less favourably. Hence they did not take the opportunity to earn twice as much as what they ended up taking home.
* Interviews were not done, so the motivation behind the subjects' behaviours can only be assumed from the results of the experiment. Hence the "speculative" bottomline. Still a powerful one I'd say.
I would love to read more experiments like this one. I have yet to explore the experimental research literature in the field of psychology. I have no doubt that once I explore that, I shall find that studies addressing issues of self belief (as conditioned by social context) run rampant. For those of you that are reading this and can point me to especially interesting studies: I would love some references.
The shame is that economists have long neglected these psychological effects and hence have a very fragmented picture of economic behaviour.
The other shame is that it is economists that mainly dominate the public policy advising scene, giving advice to policy makers on how economies should be structured and welfare schemes designed.
- But understanding the deep, pervasive effects of social structure on ability to take advantage of economic opportunities is NOT negotiable. It is very important if socioeconomic inequality is to be seriously addressed through policy.
Further, general awareness of such research is also critical.
- The public is constantly bombarded with messages about welfare spending and its impacts. But who takes the time to educate the public about how much their support is needed for addressing these long standing inequalities and the social institutions that perpetuate them?
There really is no stronger conclusion. By this point, I am beating a dead horse rather hard! But really, I cannot stress enough how complex this inequality deal is, and how much of an effort all of society has to make to successfully tackle it. The effort has to involve both monetary and non-monetary contribution, but we all need to pitch in. And pitch in for a very long time to make a serious dent in the existing system.
Here's to awareness and the reforms that it can hopefully bring !!