Inequality perceived through implicit factor analysis and its implications for emergent social forms

by Sebastian Benthall

Vox published an interview with Keith Payne, author of The Broken Ladder.

My understanding is that the thesis of the book is that income inequality has a measurable effect on public health, especially certain kinds of chronic illnesses. The proposed mechanism for this effect is the psychological state of those perceiving themselves to be relatively worse off. This is a hardwired mechanism, it would seem, and one that is being turned on more and more by socioeconomic conditions today.

I’m happy to take this argument for granted until I hear otherwise. I’m interested in (and am jotting notes down here, not having read the book) the physics of this mechanism. It’s part of a larger puzzle about social forms, emergent social properties, and factor analysis that I’ve written about it some other posts.

Here’s the idea: income inequality is a very specific kind of social metric and not one that is easy to directly perceive. Measuring it from tax records, which short be straightforward, is fraught with technicalities. Therefore, it is highly implausible that direct perception of this metric is what causes the psychological impact of inequality.

Therefore, there must be one or more mediating factors between income inequality as an economic fact and psychological inequality as a mental phenomenon. Let’s suppose–because it’s actually what we should see as a ‘null hypothesis’–that there are many, many factors linking these phenomena. Some may be common causes of income inequality and psychological inequality, such as entrenched forms of social inequality that prevent equal access to resources and are internalized somehow. Others may be direct perception of the impact of inequality, such as seeing other people flying in higher class seats, or (ahem) hearing other people talk about flying at all. And yet we seem comfortable deriving from this very complex mess a generalized sense of inequality and its impact, and now that’s one of the most pressing political topics today.

I want to argue that when a person perceives inequality in a general way, they are in effect performing a kind of factor analysis on their perceptions of other people. When we compare ourselves with others, we can do so on a large number of dimensions. Cognitively, we can’t grok all of it–we have to reduce the feature space, and so we come to understand the world through a few blunt indicators that combine many other correlated data points into one.

These blunt categories can suggest that there is structure in the world that isn’t really there, but rather is an artifact of constraints on human perception and cognition. In other words, downward causation would happen in part through a dimensionality reduction of social perception.

On the other hand, if those constraints are regular enough, they may in turn impose a kind of structure on the social world (upward causation). If downward causation and upward causation reinforced each other, then that would create some stable social conditions. But there’s also no guarantee that stable social perceptions en masse track the real conditions. There may be systematic biases.

I’m not sure where this line of inquiry goes, to be honest. It needs more work.