Relishing Inequality

As we’ve become richer, we have moved from farmer toward forager values. This has made us more egalitarian – we are more averse to inequality and domination, and more uncomfortable when people brag, give orders, or act overtly as if some people are much better than others.

On the surface, our stories tend to affirm our social norms. Villains are often greedy disagreeable unstable illicit dominators, while the heroes who oppose them are often modest, agreeable, and capable, but not assertive or aggressive.

However, not all is as it seems on the surface. For example, we are far more interested in seeing drama or action shows centering on theses kinds of jobs: police, soldiers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, chefs, actors, athletes, and musicians. These are jobs where extreme outcomes are more possible, either because big harms can be avoided, or because great status or honor might be gained.

In jobs with more extreme possible outcomes, we are more comfortable with overt inequality and domination. We are more ok with the capable doc getting explicit deference, and berating the incompetent doc. Or with junior chefs saluting “yes chef” like soldiers. Or with the super musicians not giving much consideration to the grips and groupies who serve them.

We are not only more ok with such overt inequality and domination for these jobs in real life, we are also more ok with it in fiction. In fact, you might well say we relish it. Just as little girls fantasize about being a princess, or little boys fantasize about being action heroes, we all like to imagine we are the more able workers shown in these stories. We like to imagine getting the status and deference that these fictional characters are shown to be justified in getting.

Of course we prefer to paper this over with a villain who is far worse, making our heroes look great by contrast. So we can pretend that what we really want is to bring down the arrogant. This is somewhat like how we like stories that titillate with sexual or other indulgence, but then pretend to endorse a morality tale where such behavior is punished in the end. In both cases we can enjoy a fantasy of vicariously experiencing pleasures, while officially pretending to disapprove of them.

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  • Loveless

    “This is somewhat like how we like stories that titillate with sexual or other indulgence, but then pretend to endorse a morality tale where such behavior is punished in the end.”

    I’m not doubting this, but could I please have examples of this?

    • Ken Arromdee

      I am doubting this.

      The most prominent examples of this supposedly occurring are cases where external censorship requires the morality ending and the story is written this way as an attempt to get around the censorship.

    • Dangerous Liaisons

    • Ronfar

      “Don Juan” is the classic example.

  • Derp

    Question for Robin or others : why do you think there isn’t any social outrage over Ebola treatment inequality? American citizens are flown back to the US and receive first class treatment. Yet there are scores of others who don’t receive such treatment and presumably could. but I don’t hear anyone really complaining about this

    • Ken Arromdee

      I think there isn’t social outrage over this because there isn’t, in general, social outrage against doing such a thing. Treating your family, friends, and countrymen better than random people is *normal*, and effective altruism is *bizarre*; and even effective altruists don’t really treat all people equally.

      And specific cases where there does seem to be such social outrage are insincere and not really based on the principle they claim to be based on.

      • IMASBA

        Indeed, treating countrymen better is “normal”. An American (with insurance, I do wonder what would happen in the American media if one of those American doctors or nurses with ebola becomes homeless over medical bills for their treatment) was always treated better than a Nigerian with cancer. This discrimination is part of having nation states: the Nigerian doesn’t pay taxes in the US and is not obliged to follow its laws so it would weaken the US if they gave the Nigerian the same treatment, it would also reward the dysfunctional Nigerian system.

  • Jim Benz

    Inequality is an economic issue–those with economic power are taking a much larger slice of the pie and have the political clout to demand (and receive) substantial tax cuts to go with it. Proposing this assumed predilection of the general public to enjoy domination in the sphere of fictional entertainment as relevant to that issue, true or false, might be interesting, but it’s also a straw man on the level of “envy.” So, what is the bias that this blog is supposedly overcoming?

    • Ryan

      Sorry if I’m dense, but I don’t understand if this question has a relationship to the post. Is this a comment on the blog as a whole? OB analyzes personal and societal biases in how we pick we frame the world… But each post is not always explicitly about finances and economics.

    • Robert Koslover

      Re “…taking a much larger slice of the pie…” Have you ever considered baking your own pie? For related research, please see:

    • The posting doesn’t compare economic power to fantasized domination. It compares the antipathy toward those who “brag, give orders, or act overtly as if some people are much better than others” with the common attraction to this same behavior when there’s more at stake.

      This is the inference I’d make about economic and political power: people who otherwise seem egalitarian may applaud acts of domination in crisis situations. [One might suppose this is why everything these days is a “war” on something or another.]

  • Lord

    The usual tale here is the master and the student where what we really like is where the student surpasses the master, so we tend to fit this into generational learning with the difference being experience that one day will be passed on. It isn’t inequality that is relished but the myth that we can all be masters of something.

  • lump1

    Isn’t the simpler explanation that we fantasize about having merit in a genuine meritocracy where real stuff is at stake? I suspect that we revert to egalitarianism in cases where meritocracy is impossible to achieve, or inconsequential if it were. Almost all of us live/work in the latter sort of setting, where nobody deserves the deference we give to a genuine hotshot.

    Still, it doesn’t make us hypocrites to fantasize about true hotshots for whom it’s not wrong to treat lessers like crap. We all acknowledge that there are such people, and we may wish to be one (for whom being nice would be supererogatory), but we just don’t think that anyone around us is at all like *that*.

    • Yeah, I think the real test is that we identify with characters who’re willingly dominated, provided the authority figure is sufficiently competent and has room to exercise his competence.


    Can’t it simply be a near-mode escape from reality, a fantasy? If you enjoy shooting zombies in video games that doesn’t mean you want there to be a zombie apocalypse in the real world, if you watch porn that doesn’t mean you want to divorce your spouse and if you enjoy watching a show about a genius doctor who bosses everyone around you don’t really want the world to be that hierarchical, you may even be rooting for someone who is an underdog in the bigger picture (against the higher management of the hospital or the insurance companies for example) and after all it’s just a single wing in a single hospital he works in, it’s not like he’s running a multi-billion dollar company or a country, which is what the inequality debate in the real world are about.

    Also, in the universe of such shows the characters got where they are by 100% (unrealistic) meritocracy and they are usually of upstanding (and often unrealistic) moral character as well, so traditional real world concerns about inequality don’t apply much to those universes.

    I don’t think people are against domination by people who are truly better than them at something relevant to the field they are being dominated in, but people are concerned that the selection process is flawed and that the rewards are disproportional. Our real world authority figures are not geniuses of impeccable moral character, didn’t get where they are through meritocracy and they don’t just get to scold their employees, they get to influence the world in severe ways and ways that have nothing to do with their field of expertise.

    • IMASBA

      Perhaps we should compare my last two paragraphs to a benevolent and capable dictatorship (which holds referendums on issues where there is no single objective right answer). We may fantasize about that and recognize that it may be the best form of government and we may admire perfect examples of it in fiction, but we know that in the real world there are very few people who would be suited for the job and that we have no way of selecting them reliably whenever a replacement is needed, so in the real world we favor democracy.

  • stargirl

    “Or with junior chefs saluting “yes chef” like soldiers. Or with the super musicians not giving much consideration to the grips and groupies who serve them.”

    I’m not ok with it, at least not on an emotional level. I find this treatment of subordinates deeply off-putting. Though I try not to judge as I know the people “in charge” have alot of demands on their time and the organization may not be able to afford egalitarianism.

    I am not super-star musician but I have had students in my classes and employees I directly supervised. And I always strove to be non-authoritarian as I possibly could. I have said “its all good, don’t worry about it. If there is a problem I’ll handle it” in response to a huge number of potential issues. In the case of supervising there was software that needed to get written.I was pretty hardcore about getting people to do three things.

    Get enough code written, make sure its high quality and readable and don’t be rude to other employees (never-mind harassment). Nothing else mattered and I would do anything I could to protect employees from the consequences of not following stupid rules. in my opinion this was the minimal amount I could responsibly exercise my power. As a professor there wasn’t even code to ship so I has almost no rules except no talking to friends in class (testing and going on facebook were openly tolerated though I didn’t explicitly say they were ok).

    I am not arguing my ways are “better” than the “Yes chef!” method. But I certainly don’t fit this article.

    • What seems important for the power-bloated good guy plot to work (in addition to a broad range of possible outcomes) is that he also show aggression toward those above him. Those who are dictatorial to those below and obsequious to those above are never a pretty picture.

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  • The Hunger Games seems like a particularly extreme example of this – the moral gist seems to be that the rich people who like watching the poor die for sport are bad. Yet most of the entertainment in the series seems to come from watching the poor kill each other.

  • Ronfar

    In the new Disney movie Big Hero Six,

    [spoiler warning]

    everyone thinks the mask-wearing super-villain is probably industrialist Alistair Krei, because he seems to fit the villain stereotype of “greedy disagreeable unstable illicit dominators”, but it turns out it’s not him – it’s Professor Callahan, who didn’t actually die in the fire and has been holding a (quite understandable) grudge against Krei…