Is income inequality the real cause of student bullying?

In their book The Spirit Level Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson present a compelling argument, supported by national and international statistics, that a wide range of social ills (e.g. homicide, obesity, drug use, mental illness, anxiety, teenage pregnancies, high school dropouts and school bullying) are correlated with and seemingly caused by one thing: the growing income gap between the richest and the poorest.

In September 2014 we interviewed Richard Wilkinson, Emeritus Professor at the University of Nottingham, England.

It has been five years since you wrote the Spirit Level. Have you tracked any change in income inequality levels in the US or Europe?

In most countries income gaps have widened. In a few they have stayed the same. What has changed is the level of concern. We saw this first with the occupy movement in the USA and now also among global leaders.  Last year Pope Francis said that “inequality is the root of social ills.” [November 24, 2013] President Obama suggested in a speech at the White House that income inequality is the “defining challenge of our time”.  [December 4, 2013]

Last month at Davos, the World Economic Forum reported that income inequality is one of the most significant risks we face to global wellbeing.  Do you feel validated?

The CEOS who contributed to the Davos forum are part of the problem. If they are paying the workers at the lower end of their companies 1/300th of what they pay themselves, that is like telling a whole swathe of the population that they are almost worthless.

How do you understand the connection between income inequality and bullying?

The quality of our social relations really matters.  Look at the word companion.  It comes from the Latin words com and pan, meaning the people that we share bread with.  We know from epidemiology that friendship is a more powerful predictor of health than whether or not you smoke. 

With bigger income differences, society becomes more hierarchical. Status competition increases and community life weakens.  As status differences increase, we judge each other’s worth more by status and status anxiety increases. In last year’s riots in Britain, the youth involved were stealing status goods. If you study violence among adults, it is now well established that violence levels are tied to income inequalities.

If we look at the contrast between the quality of social relations in more and less equal societies, it makes perfect sense that bullying levels are greater in more unequal societies.  Inequality breeds relations of dominance and subordination rather than reciprocity and cooperation. Dominance hierarchies among animals are bullying hierarchies with the strongest at the top. 

Parenting is in some ways a system for passing on to children the experience of what sort of society they are growing up in and will have to deal with.  Is it cooperative or is it a dog eat dog world with everyone out for themselves?  Parents who take the latter view are more likely to train their children to be streetwise so that they can stick up for themselves and fight their corner.

Would you go so far as to say that income inequality causes bullying?

This raises difficult questions of what counts as evidence of causality.  Most studies in the social sciences are observational. You can’t really do causative experiments.   So beyond correlations, we are left with theorizing. But to say that greater income differences causes an increase in bullying is certainly the most plausible explanation of the correlations.

The test of a good theory according to Karl Popper is whether you can use it to make accurate predictions.  The first papers showing an association between income inequality and worse population health came out in 1979 and there are now several hundred peer reviewed papers. Our critics accuse us of picking countries and data to suit our argument, but there are studies which include data for over a hundred counties and the relationships have been replicated many times, often using much more sophisticated statistical methods. We know and can predict that more unequal societies will suffer a wide range of damaging psychosocial effects including higher levels of school bullying.