Norm is amazed by Michael Lewis's story of how an arbitary inequality can create a sense of entitlement.I'm amazed he's amazed, because this is consistent with other evidence that people's behaviour can be shaped by randomly-imposed inequalities, for example:
- In the Stanford prison experiment, randomly-appointed "guards" behaved brutally to randomly-assigned "prisoners".
These experiments suggest that it is inequality that generates behaviour, rather than behaviour that generates inequality. In Lewis's story, the boss is greedy because s/he is the boss - she's not the boss because she's greedy. In the Stanford experiment, guards are brutal because they are guards, not because they become guards because they have a nasty nature. And people can differ in academic ability not (just) because of innate differences but because they live up and down to stereotypes.
There are other ways in which this can happen. People who achieve some success become (over-)confident, and others mistake confidence for actual ability, and so believe that the over-confident person deserves his success. And people who adopt high-power poses (pdf) - either by occupying positions of power or just randomly - become more confident and risk-loving.
There are two big messages here. One is that people's behaviour is shaped less by their nature and more by social context than we think.
The other is that even arbitrary and undeserved inequality can very easily feed on itself. The successful quickly get a sense of entitlement and deference from others, whilst the unsuccessful lose confidence and ability. In these ways even unjust inequalities will appear to be legitimate.