Feels Like Pain

Does relative poverty matter? If differences in income just mean that some people have bigger, shinier barbeques then probably not. Big shiny propane guzzling barbeques are nice but, as Clive Hamilton says, living without one doesn’t amount to hardship. To many people it seems obvious that real poverty is about physical suffering — things like malnutrition, disease and death. However, recent research on the neural basis of suffering might make us think twice.

Relative poverty isn’t just about big shiny barbecue deprivation. Long before bottled gas and wok burners, economist Adam Smith was writing about the emotional impact of having visibly less than others:

The poor man… is ashamed of his poverty. He feels that it either places him out of the sight of mankind, or, that if they take any notice of him, they have, however, scarce any fellow–feeling with the misery and distress which he suffers. He is mortified upon both accounts; for though to be overlooked, and to be disapproved of, are things entirely different, yet as obscurity covers us from the daylight of honour and approbation, to feel that we are taken no notice of, necessarily damps the most agreeable hope, and disappoints the most ardent desire, of human nature (TMS).

As historian Gertrude Himmelfarb noted , "That poverty is a relative concept is hardly a new discovery". When Smith wrote about ‘necessaries’ he understood "not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without" (WN). In Smith’s England that meant a linen shirt and leather shoes. In a less affluent time or place these might have been considered luxuries.

The seemingly obvious distinction between absolute and relative poverty relies on the idea that physical suffering is somehow more real than social suffering. Surely the pain you feel when you shiver with cold or spend days without food isn’t a result of how you interpret your situation. Cold and starvation are physical and undeniably real. But when you complain about being ignored or looked down on, supporters of the absolute concept of poverty will say that you have a psychological problem — "Sticks and stones might break my bones" they say, "but words (or cold shoulders) will never hurt me."

The trouble is, there may not be much of a difference between the experience of physical and social suffering. In a 2003 paper in Science, psychologists Naomi Eisenberger, Matthew Lieberman and Kip Williams report an experiment where they simulated the experience of social exclusion while scanning their subjects’ brains. They found evidence that "the experience and regulation of of social and physical pain share a common neuroanatomical basis." Both physical and social pain involved activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC).

This part of the brain seems to be involved in the emotionally distressing aspects of pain. In a 2004 paper Eisenberger and Lieberman wrote:

For decades, neurosurgeons have performed cingulotomies, a circumscribed lesioning of the ACC, to treat intractable chronic pain. Patients who have undergone cingulotomies for chronic pain report that they are still able to feel the pain but that it no longer bothers them, highlighting the ACC’s role in the distressing, rather than the sensory, component of physical pain (pdf).

So while physical pain might feel different to social pain, the emotional suffering it produces is experienced in a similar way. Eisenberger and Lieberman argue that there are good reasons for this:

Increasingly, evidence is pointing to the importance of social connections not only for our happiness and well-being but for our survival as well… we are beginning to appreciate that the need for social connection is so essential to survival, at least in mammalian species, that being left out or disconnected from the social group is processed by the brain in a manner similar to physical pain. Just as physical pain has evolved to alert us that something has gone wrong with our bodies, social pain is a similarly potent signal that alerts us when something has gone wrong with our social connections to others, an equally important threat to the survival of our species (pdf).

Unlike many of today’s free market enthusiasts, Adam Smith understood why poverty can still matter in a affluent society. The beliefs others have about the causes of poverty can lead to a loss of status and social exclusion. Understanding why poverty matters is important because it helps us decide what to do about it. On their own, differences in income are not a problem. But when a widening income distribution goes hand in hand with the belief that poor individuals are morally inferior, then the problem can get far worse. Unfortunately, this seems to be the direction in which some free market think tanks want to take us.

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Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
14 years ago

Though pain serves a useful function in alerting us to problems; it should only be eased if the underlying problem is also being dealt with. Low social status is not just punishment, it is an incentive to avoid the behaviours that lead to it.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
14 years ago

“Low social status is not just punishment, it is an incentive to avoid the behaviours that lead to it.”

I find it hard to believe that you think that – for example – Afro-Americans could have avoided their low status by changing the way they act. Don’t the people making status judgements have a choice about how they judge?

If you’re talking about poverty rather than low status in general are you saying that individuals can usually avoid poverty by changing their behaviour?

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
14 years ago

Don – I am well aware of the correlates of low SES and the importance of creating the right overall policy framework. But one reason for the persistence of poverty in some groups despite opportunities to get ahead is that they don’t reinforce the behaviours necessary to get out of poverty: going to school, not taking drugs or drinking heavily, not breaking the law, getting a job, planning for the future (eg saving money)etc . Pretending that these things aren’t important and all that is required is a few extra billion dollars is to my mind fanciful – and the disastrous consequences are on full display in many Aboriginal settlements (I was about to call them communities, but that would be an exaggeration).

Backroom Girl
Backroom Girl
14 years ago

Don – are you saying that it’s the experience of social exclusion that matters, rather than material deprivation? That poverty is essentially low self-esteem – a reaction to how people think they are perceived by others?

While I don’t necessarily disagree with this conclusion and I have seen it among people I have known who were heavily reliant on income support, I can see a few key problems. First, how do you measure it? At least with income poverty and the related concept of material deprivation, you can have a debate about how poverty is defined and should be measured, even if people are never going to agree. If poverty is primarily a psychological state, which may or may not be based in an objective assessment of where a person sits in the social hierarchy, then how do we identify and measure it and what the hell do we do about it in policy terms?

Just giving people more money will not solve the problem because it won’t necessarily change the way people feel about themselves. In any case, the government’s been following this strategy (for some groups such as age pensioners and families with children) for quite some time now, with apparently little impact on poverty as a lived experience.

It does seem that poor people may be more acutely aware of how they compare with others in terms of material possessions. I was struck, when reading the initial findings of the SPRC Peter Saunders’ latest research excursion into this area that income support recipients are significantly more likely than the general population to consider all sorts of mod cons as ‘essentials of life’.

Guise
Guise
14 years ago

And here we have powerful material for every teenager who argues they just have to have the latest iPod …

Gummo Trotsky
14 years ago

… pain serves a useful function in alerting us to problems; it should only be eased if the underlying problem is also being dealt with.

GP: Well, I can’t say exactly what the problem is, so we’ll have to send you off to a specialist …

Patient: Hurts like buggery doc. Can you give me something for the pain.

GP: Not until you’ve seen the specialist. It’s the new guidelines “pain should only be eased if the underlying problem is being dealt with.” You can have pain relief once the specialist has made a definite diagnosis.

Great post Don.

Spiros
Spiros
14 years ago

“behaviours”

Off topic, but behaviours isn’t a real word.

The plural of behaviour is behaviour.

Behaviours is a made-up word used by pseudo-psychologists.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
14 years ago

Spiros – I disagree. Behaviour is normally a mass noun, but mass nouns can be used as count nouns (and therefore take the plural “s”) when the writer/speaker wants to emphasise different types or sub-categories. As Pam Peters, the source of much usage wisdom, puts it: “the count/mass distinction is not inherent in the word, but in its use.”

SimonC
SimonC
14 years ago

GP: Not until youve seen the specialist. Its the new guidelines pain should only be eased if the underlying problem is being dealt with. You can have pain relief once the specialist has made a definite diagnosis.

The key work being also. Here’s a strawman reply to your strawman.

Patient: Doc, it hurts when I stick this fork in my eye.

GP: Here, have some aspirin.

Patient: Ah, no more pain. Off to the beach for me then!

stephen bartos
stephen bartos
14 years ago

or indeed Don you could go back to the classic Harlow experiements about maternal bonding in monkeys that demonstrated that the young rhesus monkeys preferred the comfort of something that felt like their mother to actual physical nourishment…that is, bonding with others is a critical part of well being in primates. It is therefore not at all surprising to me to see the Eisenberger et al study finding physical markers confirming what psychology experiments might lead one to presuppose. There are important conclusions as you point out for the some (unsophisticated) free market enthusiasts; but equally, such findings illustrate limitations of the hair shirt anti-material-‘possessions are bad for us’ gurus. While beyond a certain basic level of physical satisfaction getting more ‘stuff’ does not make us as a collective entity happier, for poorer individuals specifically if the gap is growing between those with stuff and those without, then misery does increase.

melaleuca
14 years ago

Andrew Norton says:

“Low social status is not just punishment, it is an incentive to avoid the behaviours that lead to it.”

People can have low status based on their occupations, for instance toilet cleaner or garbage collector. Does Kenny the Porta-Loo guy really need to be punished as an incentive to improve himself?

Spiros
Spiros
14 years ago

” income support recipients are significantly more likely than the general population to consider all sorts of mod cons as essentials of life. ”

No doubt. The problem is, they don’t have the cash to pay for them all. The solution: “18 months interest free” loans, which traps people, usually on low incomes, into paying off multiple plasmas over 20 years at usurious interest rates.

the count/mass distinction is not inherent in the word, but in its use.

Andrew, on this argument, if sufficient numbers of people use “youse” as the plural of “you”, then youse becomes correct.

Or perhaps the furniture in your living room and the furniture in your bedroom are together the furnitures in your house.

I thought people like you wanted to restore some good old fashioned standards in the use of the Queen’s English!

Link
14 years ago

Low social status is not necessarily tied in with wealth as I know several people with bucket loads of filthy lucre but low social status. They have no incentive to deal with their problem behaviours, (drinking, gambling, bigotry, etc) and such problems IMO can be more accurately attributed to their level of education and the their upbringing. I also know several very fine people who are as poor as church mice. These people have no problem behaviours in particular and are generally far better behaved.

When I have money I feel better about myself. When I don’t have money I get to feel hugely contemptuous of people (usually shopkeepers, small business owners, middle managers, and middle-aged salesmen) who treat me with contempt for being poor. Aside from blogging, I don’t really have any problem behaviours, although I admit saving money when you have none to spare can be problematic.

Good post Don. I don’t know what parts of my brain light up when I am treated rudely based on my wealth by people who I consider socially less adept. I’m not sure if its pain as such that I feel, but it certainly makes me hot under the collar.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
14 years ago

“Does Kenny the Porta-Loo guy really need to be punished as an incentive to improve himself?”

Well that Kenny is a movie star. And perhaps counter-intuitively the differences in job satisfaction by occupation are not that great; Porta-Loo guys may not be as sensitive to occupational status differences as left-wing intellectuals.

Is anyone seriously saying we should not have the norms I listed in comment 3?

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
14 years ago

Does Kenny the Porta-Loo guy really need to be punished as an incentive to improve himself?

Let’s put this another way. Why should the affluent be punished by having more of their income taken from them to gratify the envy of others? If that income was being taken away from them to form part of a common pool of social insurance that anyone can draw on in moments of bad luck to insure against starvation, etc that would be different. But this concern with relative positions is about nothing more than envy.

I also think intervening on the basis of psychological externalities is problematic because it can justify lots of other things. What is enough people become religious and feel aggrieved by the presence of homosexuals in their midst? Or enough people become xenophobic and feel aggrieved by the presence of dark skinned foreigners in their midst? I’m sure if you did a brain scan of some of the most rabid racists their brains would light up with pain too in the knowledge that there are such people in the community/

Gummo Trotsky
14 years ago

SimonC,

Nice nitpick (fancy missing that also – lax of me – but it didn’t modify the meaning of the original to any significant degree), lousy counter:

Patient: Ah, no more pain. Off to the beach for me then!

GP: Hold hard there slim – I think we’d better look into why you have this compulsion to stick forks in your eye.

Alternatively, the GP might get on the phone to see if he get the patient into psychiatric care until the self-mutilating behaviour is under control. But, unless you’re prepared to be wilfully obtuse, you ought to see the point – ameliorating pain (a symptom of a condition) and treating the underlying condition are not mutually exclusive and the assertion that they ought in some circumstances be made mutually exclusive (an assertion about ethics), is questionable.

melaleuca
14 years ago

“Why should the affluent be punished by having more of their income taken from them to gratify the envy of others?”

For a number of reasons, one being that our economic system does not dispense income in a fair manner in the first place.

Also, is it really only envy when Mrs Jones in Broadmeadows is upset that her children go to a poorly equipped state school with poor morale and low aspirations, whereas Mrs Smith in Toorak has her kids in an elite private school with a heated swimming pool and polo field and the best resources and teachers money can buy?

Of course not, Mrs Jones’ has every right to expect her children will not be relatively disadvantaged.

Envy appears to be your latest buzzword, Soon. A concern for equity is natural, normal and completely healthy.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
14 years ago

nice post Don, and I completely agree.
I suppose from the perspective of science the logical conclusion to this line of argument is to take any source of suffering as of equal value (since their experience ‘counts’ as the same internally). That line of thought leads you streight to utilitarianism and to the question ‘how can I make my population as least deprived/happy as possible’. Poverty, whether relative or absolute, is then only a surprisinly small component: at the individual level, material poverty is only a small factor amonst the many factors going into suffering. If memory serves, you’d be hard pressed to get more than 10% explanatory power from poverty on happiness, and it goes down even more if we look at the explanatory power of poverty on indicators of physical well-being.
That brings us to policy: even though you are right that the experience is of the same kind, this does not mean that absolute and relative poverty deserve the same amount of attention from government. Especially not if relative poverty is much more expensive to combat and if you think that relative poverty is something for which you can develop coping mechanisms that are not available for absolute poverty (i.e. you can compensate a feeling of low status by praying to a god that loves you. No amount of prayer will alleviate the feeling of hunger). I suspect that the folk belief on this is that absolute poverty is a more constant and longer lasting source of discomfort than relative poverty.

Backroom Girl
Backroom Girl
14 years ago

Thanks for raising the policy question again Paul – that’s what really interests me, since most people seem to think that the government has a role in attempting to relieve poverty of whatever kind. I’s still be interested to hear Don’s thoughts on this.

Given that most people in relative poverty are on income support, I wonder how much of the psychological pain of relative poverty comes from a person’s relative income and how much from the fact that a person is jobless and having to rely on income support. I suspect it is more the latter – if people feel that others see them as bludgers, that is probably more painful than just having less money than other people. This is also why most people on unemployment benefits don’t mind having to look for work and do other things in return for their payment – it means they can feel they are earning their keep.

So perhaps the answer after all is to get as many people into work as possible, rather than just throw them extra money. As Andrew Norton points out, having a lowly job doesn’t necessarily cause people pain – even if we middle class types can’t imagine how anyone could be happy making sandwiches or cleaning loos.

Armchair
Armchair
14 years ago

Low social status is not just punishment, it is an incentive to avoid the behaviours that lead to it.

Like an incentive to choose your parents and their economic circumstances more carefully I guess..

Why should the affluent be punished by having more of their income taken from them to gratify the envy of others?

Perhaps because being punished in that way is probably less painful than allowing the gulf between haves and have-nots to get to the point where the have-nots rise up.

SimonC
SimonC
14 years ago

Gummo

fancy missing that also – lax of me – but it didnt modify the meaning of the original to any significant degree

Of course it modifies the meaning of the original. Saying it should only be eased if the underlying problem is also being dealt with is another way of saying ameliorating pain (a symptom of a condition) and treating the underlying condition are not mutually exclusive.

also != mutually exclusive

Armchair
Armchair
14 years ago

..income support recipients are significantly more likely than the general population to consider all sorts of mod cons as essentials of life.

I suspect that this may be due to the fact that they are more likely to have practical experience of living without these rather than a simply theoretical position on their necessity.

Gummo Trotsky
14 years ago

Evidently you’re not wilfully obtuse, Simon.