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Families & Community

When inequality is visible, problems arise

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user Santa Catalina School
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I am no stranger to uniforms. I went to Catholic school for 12 years, so from kindergarten through my senior year of high school I had to wear some iteration of white button-down shirt with plaid skirt, jumper or pants. And you know what? I actually liked it. It was so easy to get ready in the morning; no thought went into what I was wearing or whether I looked cool. So from a vanity standpoint and, let's face it, a laziness standpoint, the utilitarian function of the school uniform was a plus.

Turns out there are even more benefits to school uniforms. By making everyone dress the same, we were essentially equal. You couldn't tell who was super-rich or who came from a middle-class background or whose parents were struggling to make ends meet. Uniforms made inequality invisible. And that, according to a new study in the journal Nature, can have wide-ranging positive effects. 

Nicolas Christakis is a professor at Yale University and one of the authors of the new experiment that looks at wealth, visibility and social networks. I talked with Christakis about his recent study and about his work on networks in general. What follows are excerpts from our conversation:

Take a listen to hear how the experiment worked

That's right. Real people, real money. But the study's authors didn't just manipulate how unequal the societies were, they also manipulated whether the wealth was visible. One of these "temporary societies" allowed people to see who was rich and who was poor, another society did not allow people to see who was rich and who was poor; wealth was invisible. And then as The Atlantic explains, here's what the people in the experiment could do with the money: 

They were then asked to either cooperate with their neighbors by reducing their own wealth by 50 units in order to increase the wealth of all neighbors by 100 units, or to defect — paying no cost at all and reaping no benefits. After they made that choice, they were allowed to decide whether to stay connected to their same neighbors or not for the next round.

From there, Christakis and his co-authors measured essentially how nice people were with one another:

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And here's what they found

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When people knew they were more well-off than their counterparts, they were less likely to cooperate. When people were unaware of how much money others had, they were more likely to cooperate. In other words, the study argues that the problem with inequality right now is not even so much the inequality itself, but the visibility of the inequality. To quote the Atlantic again, "visible poverty reduces overall cooperation, interconnectedness, and wealth. But inequality itself has “relatively little” impact on cooperation or interconnectedness."

And that brings us back to the uniform scenario

Christakis says school uniforms "make wealth invisible," and that school uniforms "foster a kind of collegiality and a kind of kindness." So that's a good thing. But of course we all don't go to Catholic school and mandatory uniforms for the whole country? Not going to happen. So where's the real world application here? Christakis believes his findings could perhaps be applied to issues of employee pay and whether or not a company should make public how much each employee makes:

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I didn't get a chance to ask him where reporters fall into the mix. It's our job here at State of Opportunity to highlight the inequalities around us and make visible the struggles that people from low-income communities face. Based on this experiment, I guess you could argue that by making inequality visible we're doing more harm than good. But until I see the data on that I'm going to keep bringing you stories about folks like Keisha and Alyssa and Amanda and Mike Hood and others who are trying their best to get ahead despite the challenges facing them.