When addressing social inequality, it is in the interest of people on the bottom to destabilize and those at the top to stabilize the system, Brian Lowery, the Walter Kenneth Kilpatrick Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford University, said.
Lowery initiated the discussion with a focused analysis of the concept of hierarchy in modern society, particularly as it relates to racial issues and the concept of white privilege.
According to Lowery, problems commonly addressed in psychology involve the existence of established hierarchies and why individuals at the bottom keep the status quo, rather than rise up against the establishment.
Most psychological studies, however, focus on the costs to the people at the bottom tiers of society, instead of addressing the downward pressure placed upon this class.
Lowery used this lens to analyze the actions that the upper classes would take, such as granting concessions and bringing others into the system to increase the costs of rejecting the system.
To explain this concept, Lowery utilized the example of when members of a lower status group are admitted into the University.
“Are you less likely to protest and riot against inequality?” he asked. “Probably, since you are now part of the system and have more to lose from destabilization,” he said.
Lowery explained that individuals are thereby more likely to strive to maintain the current establishment by virtue of reciprocity towards the establishment that granted them this benefit. On a greater scale, such concessions build up and decrease individuals’ personal motivations to collectively oppose the establishment.
Lowery added that these concessions have great implications, such as in relation to the presidential primaries, in how the elite are more likely to preserve the status quo, while those towards the bottom of the hierarchy are more likely to vote for a destabilizing candidate who would initiate change.
Eric Knowles, associate professor of psychology at New York University, explained racial privilege phenomena, such as the denial of white privilege, through the lens of individual in-groups, or groups that a particular member belongs to.
“White privilege is a self-threat, as it is a truism that people want to take credit for their success and avoid blame for their failures,” he said.
To acknowledge their privilege, individuals would discount their personal success and enhance the weight of their failures, he added.
To highlight the ways in which individuals deal with the concept of privilege, Knowles noted statistical evidence from many psychological studies to form the “3D Model” of privilege: Deny, Distance, Dismantle.
In this model, when individuals are faced with their privilege, they will attempt to either deny the existence of this privilege, disassociate themselves from their privileged identity, or choose to move forward in dismantling this hierarchical system of privilege.
Both Lowery and Knowles noted the difficulty in dismantling this concept of privilege and its pervasive existence through a hierarchical society.
“People as a whole tend to be egocentric creatures … it would take a huge show of altruism to give up privilege in favor of equality,” Lowery said.