Why does inequality produce high crime and low trust? And why doesn’t making punishments harsher solve the problem?

Societies with higher levels of inequality have more crime, and lower levels of social trust. That’s quite a hard thing to explain: how could the distribution of wealth (which is a population-level thing) change decisions and attitudes made in the heads of individuals, like whether to offend? After all, most individuals don’t know what the population-level distribution of wealth is, only how much they have got, perhaps compared to a few others around them. Much of the extra crime in high-inequality societies is committed by people at the bottom end of the socioeconomic distribution, so clearly individual-level of resources might have something to do with the decision; but that is not so for trust: the low trust of high-inequality societies extends to everyone, rich and poor alike.

In a new paper, Benoit de Courson and I attempt to provide a simple general model of why inequality might produce high crime and low trust. (By the way, it’s Benoit’s first paper, so congratulations to him.) It’s a model in the rational-choice tradition: it assumes that when people offend (we are thinking about property crime here), they are not generally doing so out of psychopathology or error. They do so because they are trying their best to achieve their goals given their circumstances.

So what are their goals? In the model, we assume people want to maximise their level of resources in the very long term. But-and it’s a critical but- we assume that there is a ‘desperation threshold’: a level of resources below which it is disastrous to drop. The idea comes from classic models of foraging: there’s a level of food intake you have to achieve or, if you are a small bird, you starve to death. We are not thinking of the threshold as literal starvation. Rather, it’s the level of resources below which it becomes desperately hard to participate in your social group any more, below which you become destitute. If you get close to this zone, you need to get out, and immediately.

In the world of the model, there are three things you can do: work alone, which is unprofitable but safe; cooperate with others, which is profitable just as long as they do likewise; or steal, which is great if you get away with it but really bad if you get caught (we assume there are big punishments for people caught stealing). Now, which of these is the best thing to do?

The answer turns out to be: it depends. If your current resources are above the threshold, then, under the assumptions we make, it is not worth stealing. Instead, you should cooperate as long as you judge that the others around you are likely to do so too, and just work alone otherwise. If your resources are around or below the threshold, however, then, under our assumptions, you should pretty much always steal. Even if it makes you worse off on average.

This is a pretty remarkable result: why would it be so? The important thing to appreciate is that with our threshold, we have introduced a sharp non-linearity in the fitness function, or utility function, that is assumed to be driving decisions. Once you fall down below that threshold, your prospects are really dramatically worse, and you need to get back up immediately. This makes stealing a worthwhile risk. If it happens to succeed, it’s the only action with a big enough quick win to leap you back over the threshold in one bound. If, as is likely, it fails, you are scarcely worse off in the long run: your prospects were dire anyway, and they can’t get much direr. So the riskiness of stealing – it sometimes you gives you a big positive outcome and sometimes a big negative one – becomes a thing you should seek rather than avoid.

Fig. 1. The right action to choose, in Benoit’s model, according to your current resources and the trustworthiness of others in your population. The threshold of desperation is shown as zero on the x-axis.

So, in summary, the optimal action to choose is as shown in figure 1. If you are doing ok, then your job is to figure out how trustworthy your fellow citizens are (how likely to cooperate): you should cooperate if they are trustworthy enough, and hunker down alone otherwise. If you are desperate, you basically have no better option than to steal.

Now then, we seem to be a long way from inequality, which is where we started. What is it about unequal populations that generates crime? Inequality is basically the spread of the distribution of resources: where inequality is high, the spread is wide. A wide spread pretty much guarantees that at least some individuals will find themselves down below the threshold at least some of the time; and figure 1 shows what we expect them to do. If the spread is narrower, then fewer people hit the threshold, and fewer people have incentives to start offending. Thus, the inequality of the resource distribution ends up determining the occurrence of stealing, even though no agent in this model ‘knows’ what that distribution looks like: each individuals only knows resources what they have, and how other individuals behaved in recent interactions.

What about trust? We assume that individuals build up trust through interacting cooperatively with others and finding that it goes ok. In low-inequality populations, where no-one is desperate and hence no-one starts offending, individuals rapidly learn that others can be trusted, everyone starts to cooperate, and all are better off over time. In high-inequality populations, the desperate are forced to steal, and the well-off are forced not to cooperate for fear of being victimized. One of the main results of Benoit’s model is that in high-inequality populations, only a few individuals actually ever steal, but still this behaviour dominates the population-level outcome, since all the would-be cooperators soon switch to distrusting solitude. It is a world of gated communities.

Another interesting feature is that making punishments more severe has almost no effect at all on the results shown in figure 1. If you are below the threshold, you should steal even if the punishment is arbitrarily large. Why? Because of the non-linearity of the utility function: if your act succeeds, your prospects are suddenly massively better, and if it fails, there is scarcely any worse off that it is possible to be. This result could be important. Criminologists and economists have worried why it is that making sentences tougher does not seem to deter offending in the way it feels intuitively like it ought. This is potentially an answer. When you have basically nothing left to lose, it really does not matter how much people take off you.

In fact, our analyses suggest some conditions under which making sentences tougher would actually be counterproductive. Mild punishments disincentivize at the margin. Severe sentences can make individuals so much worse off that there may be no feasible legitimate way for them to ever regain the happy zone above the threshold. By imposing a really big cost on them through a huge punishment, you may be committing them to a life where the only recourse is ever more desperate attempts to leapfrog themselves back to safety via illegitimate means.

So if making sentences tougher does not solve the problems of crime in high-inequality populations, according to the model, is there anything that does? Well, yes: and readers of this blog may not be surprised to hear me mention it. Redistribution. If people who are facing desperation can expect their fortunes to improve by other means, such as redistributive action, then they don’t need to employ such desperate means as stealing. They will get back up there anyway. Our model shows that a shuffling of resources so that the worst off are lifted up and the top end is brought down can dramatically reduce stealing, and hence increase trust. (In an early version of this work, we simulated the effects of a scenario we named ‘Corbyn victory’: remember then?).

The idea of a desperation threshold does not seem too implausible, but it is a key assumption of our model, on which all the results depend. Our next step is to try to build experimental worlds in which such a threshold is present – it is not a feature of typical behavioural-economic games – and see if people really do respond as predicted by the model.

De Courson, B., Nettle, D. Why do inequality and deprivation produce high crime and low trust?. Scientific Reports 11, 1937 (2021).

Why is Universal Basic Income suddenly such a great idea?

The idea of an unconditional basic income, paid to all (UBI), has a long history. Very long in fact. Yet, although the policy has been deemed philosophically and (sometimes) economically attractive, it has generally languished in the bailiwick of enthusiasts, mavericks, philosophers and policy nerds (these are, by the way, overlapping categories). But now, with the global pandemic, UBI is very much back in the spotlight. Previous sceptics are coming out with more enthusiastic assessments (for example, here and here). Spain apparently aims to roll out a UBI scheme ‘as soon as possible‘ in response to the crisis, with the aim that this becomes a ‘permanent instrument’ of how the Spanish state works. And even the US Congress relief cheques for citizens, though short-term, have a UBI-like quality to them. So why, all over the place, does UBI suddenly seem like such a great idea?

Answering this question requires answering another, prior one: why didn’t people think it was such a great idea before? To understand why people’s objections have gone away, you need to understand what they were before, as well as why they seem less compelling in this time of upheaval. UBI is a policy that appears to suffer from ‘intuition problems’. You can model it all you like and show that it would be feasible, efficient and cost effective; but many people look at it and think ‘Mah! Giving people money without their having to do anything! Something wrong with that!’. It’s like a musical chord that is not quite in tune; and that’s a feeling that it is hard to defeat with econometrics. But intuitions such as these might be very context-dependent: and the context of society certainly has changed in the last few months.

To try to understand if the acceptibility of UBI to the public has changed for these pandemic-affected times, and, if so, why, Matthew Johnson, Elliott Johnson, Rebecca Saxe and I collected data on April 7th from 400 UK and 400 US residents. This was not a representative sample from either country, but we had a good balance of genders and a spread of age.

We first described a UBI policy to respondents, and asked them to rate how good an idea they found it, both for normal times, and for the times of this pandemic and its aftermath. As the figure below shows, they almost universally thought it was a better idea for times of the pandemic and its aftermath than before-on average, 16 points better on a 1-100 scale.

Ratings of how good an idea a UBI scheme is, for normal and pandemic times, UK and USA samples. Shown are medians, inter-quartile ranges, and the distribution of the data.

Actually, these participants thought UBI was a better idea for normal times than I would have expected, which is hard to interpret without some historical data on this participant pool. Support for UBI has found to vary a lot, in the past, depending on how you frame the policy and what alternatives you pit it against. In our study, it was not up against any alternative scheme; just rated as a good or bad idea.

Now, why was UBI thought a better idea for pandemic times than normal times? We listed nine of the most obvious advantages and disadvantages of the policy, and asked respondents to say how important they felt each of these would be for their overall assessment of the policy – again, as a policy for normal times, and for pandemic times. The advantages were: knowing there is a guaranteed income reduces stress and anxiety; the policy is simple and efficient; the universality gives a value to every individual in society; and the system cannot be cheated. The disadvantages were: it’s expensive; you would be paying money to the rich, who do not need it; people might use it irresponsibly, like on gambling or drugs; people would be less prone to work for money; and people who did not deserve it would get it. All of these pros and cons were rating as having some importance for the desirability of the policy in normal times, though naturally with different weightings for different people.

Rated importance of nine advantages and disadvantages for the overall assessment of the desirability of UBI, for normal times, and for the times of the pandemic and its aftermath.

So what was different when viewing the policy for pandemic times? Basically, three key advantages (reduces stress and anxiety; efficiency and simplicity; and giving a value to every individual) became much more important in pandemic times; whilst three of the key drawbacks (people might use it irresponsibly; the labour market consequences; and receipt by the undeserving), became rather less important. I guess these findings make sense; given the rapidity with which the pandemic has washed over the population, you really need something simple and efficient; given how anxiety-provoking it is, it is imperative to reassure people; and given that millions of people are economically inactive anyway, not through their own choice, potential labour market consequences are moot. Rather to our surprise, the expense of the policy was not rated as the most important consideration for normal times; and nor had this become a less important consideration now, when figures of £330 billion or $1 trillion seem to be flying around all over the place.

The strongest predictors of supporting UBI in normal times were rating highly: the importance of stress and anxiety reduction; the efficiency of the policy; and the valuing of every individual. So it is no mystery that in pandemic times, when those particular three things are seen as much more important, that the overall level of support for the policy should go up. In other words, what the pandemic seems to do is make all people weight highly the considerations that the most pro-UBI people already rated highly for normal times anyway. Perhaps the most intriguing of the pandemic-related shifts in importance of the different factors was the increase in importance of giving every individual in society a value. It is not obvious to me why the pandemic should make us want every individual to have a value, any more than we should want this the rest of the time. Perhaps because the pandemic is some kind of common threat, that we can only solve by all working collaboratively? Perhaps because the pandemic reminds us of our massive interdependence? Because we are all in some important sense alike in the face of the disease?

Whatever the reason, our respondents felt it was more important, in these times, for every person in society to be accorded a value. And for me, that is one of the most philosophically appealing aspects of UBI. Not that it decreases income inequality, which unless it is very large, it will probably not do to any appreciable extent; not just that it gives people certainty in rapidly fluctuating times, which it would do; but that its existence constitutes a particular type of social category, a shared citizenship. Getting your UBI would be one of those few things that we can all do – like having one vote or use of an NHS hospital – to both reflect and constitute our common membership of, and share in, a broader social entity. In other words, in addition to all its pragmatic and adminstrative appeal, UBI bestows a certain dignity on everyone, that may help promote health, foster collective efficacy, and mitigate the social effects of the myriad and obvious ways we are each valued differently by society. And these times, apparently, are making the value of this unconditional dignity more apparent.

One last point: people who consider themselves on the left of politics were more favourable to UBI than those on the right (particularly in the US sample; which is interesting given the places of Milton Friedman and Richard Nixon in UBI’s pedigree). But the boost in support for the policy that came from pandemic applied absolutely across the political spectrum. Even those on the right wing of our sample thought it was a pretty good idea for pandemic times (with, of course, the caveat that this was not a representative sample, and we did not offer them any alterrnative to UBI that they might have preferred). So, just possibly, an advantage of UBI schemes in this uncertain time is that pretty much everyone, whatever their ideology, can see what the appeal of the scheme is. That may yet prove important.

Support for UBI for normal times (solid lines) and pandemic times (dotted lines), for the UK and USA, against self-placement on a scale of 1=left-wing to 100=right-wing.

June 2nd 2020 update: We have now written this study up. You can download the preprint here.

Hanging on to the Edges book published

I am delighted to be able to say that my new book Hanging on to the Edges is now published. Thanks to Open Book Publishers, it’s an open access book; you can read it online, download the PDF, or order paper copies here.

People often ask me what Hanging on to the Edges is about, and it is not entirely easy to say. It is based on fourteen blog essays I published on this site over the past two years, though they are revised and re-ordered in the book version. It is an attempt to reflect on the major things I care about most in life: science and being a scientist; human nature and human cognition; the relationship between the social and the biological; inter-disciplinarity; politics; and human well-being.

To give you some idea of the scope, here’s a word cloud of the terms in the index:

And here’s the table of contents:

1. How my theory explains everything: And can make you happier, healthier, and wealthier
2. What we talk about when we talk about biology
3. The cultural and the agentic
4. What is cultural evolution like?
5. Is it explanation yet?

6. The mill that grinds young people old
7. Why inequality is bad
8. Let them eat cake!
9. The worst thing about poverty is not having enough money
10. Getting your head around the Universal Basic Income

11. The need for discipline
12. Waking up and going out to work in the uncanny valley
13. Staying in the game
14. Morale is high (since I gave up hope)

Blue/Orange to play Durham

We are delighted to announce that Blue/Orange will play in Durham on Tuesday March 21st 2017, at 19:30pm, at the Empty Shop HQ in Framwellgate Bridge, DH1 4SJ. Tickets are available from here.

Wes is in no condition to sell fruit

This simple space is going to be wonderful for the piece. I like productions where I can carry the set down with me on the train. And don’t forget, of course, performances in Newcastle on the Friday and Saturday of the same week, at Northern Stage.

And this little birdie got none……

We’ve just published a new paper on the effects of early-life adversity in starlings. We are particularly interested in how early adversity affects the shortening of telomeres. Telomeres are the protective DNA caps on the ends of our (and their) chromosomes, whose length is often used as a marker of biological age. We have found previously that nestlings who are smaller than their brood mates lose telomeres faster in the first few weeks of life. A bad start ages you.

However, we didn’t know what it is about being at a disadvantage in the brood that accelerates telomere loss. Is it that you don’t get so much to eat? Or is it the stress of having to struggle and beg more to hold your own when those around you are bigger and stronger? Or a bit of both? We decided to test this in a hand-rearing experiment. Here, we would play the parents and thus decide what each bird experienced in its formative days.

andrews-clareMany collaborators contributed to this study.
Clare Andrews did much of the hard work

We took four siblings from each of eight wild broods. From each family, one sibling was fed all it wanted nine times a day; a second was fed nine times a day but only 70% of what the first sibling got; the third was fed all it wanted nine times a day but had to do an additional 18 minutes a day of begging; and the fourth, who had it toughest of all, received 70% of what the third sibling did, and also did the extra begging.

Telomeres shortened rapidly in early life, but they shortened differentially according to early experience
Telomeres shortened rapidly in early life, but they shortened differentially according to early experience

The birds all survived – in fact these adversities are well within the natural range of what a wild starling might experience. Though they all fledged into normal adult birds, we found a difference in their telomeres (in red blood cells) when they were two months old. The more adversity we had given them, the greater the magnitude of their telomere shortening over their early life. Everyone’s telomeres get shorter in this period anyway, since a lot of cell division is going on, but the birds with more adversity showed more shortening. It seems that both the amount you get to eat, and the amount you have to struggle for it, both affect the pace of your cellular ageing, and do so additively (that is, if you have both adversities, it’s worse than having either one alone). This is important, since we know in both mammals and birds that conditions experienced in early life can affect survival. Cellular ageing might point to a mechanism by which this could occur.


We also made some other curious observations. The birds showed some differences in adult inflammation according to their developmental histories, but some combinations of adversity increased adult inflammation, whilst others reduced it. Birds that had had little food, but not had to beg for it, went on to become relatively obese as juveniles (which is interesting given the links between childhood stress and obesity in humans), but birds that had had little food and had to beg for it remained lean. Thus, it looks like early-life experience matters for your biology as an adult, but it matters in complex ways, not as simple as saying ‘more early-life adversity = more adult problems’.

The behavioural constellation of deprivation

We are used to the idea that the poor behave in a certain way- living for the day, devil may care, fatalistic, impulsive, enjoying life while they can- whilst the rich are more future-oriented, self-controlled and cautious. Just read the novels of Zola, for example, for vivid descriptions the appeal of present consumption over savings amongst those with the poorest lot in society.


There’s actually a lot of evidence that, statistically, this is more than just a myth. People of lower socioeconomic status-in Britain for example-do tend to discount the future more heavily, are less health-conscious and future oriented. This can lead to a particular discourse about poverty: that people’s poverty is the consequence of their impulsive behaviours, and hence that poverty is in some sense the poor’s fault or failings that leads to their being poor (there would be no other good reason to be poor, right?).

In a ngpew paper coming out in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Gillian presents a different analysis of this phenomenon. What if the relative present-orientation that often goes with poverty were not a failing or weakness (or some kind of primordial character trait), but a sensible response to certain kinds of structural conditions?

Imagine a world where you felt that regardless of what efforts you made, you would be likely to be killed or lose everything at a relatively young age. What would you do? Would it make you all the more careful to eat your kale, have your testicular cancer screening and often check the pressure in your car tyres? Probably not. You would probably quite sensibly conclude that there was not much payoff to doing those things since something else would probably get you long before the benefits of those tedious efforts could be realised. You’d try to enjoy the life you could have while you had it. Thus, your present-orientedness, would be an appropriate response to the conditions under which you had to live.

That, in essence, is Gillian’s argument. People of lower socioeconomic position in contemporary societies tend to be exposed to worlds where they are in less of a position to realise the returns on future-oriented investments, because more uncontrollable bad shocks happen to them than happen to the rich (and, with growing inequality, a more conditional benefits system, and increased economic precariousness, this is tending to become even more true). If you accept that this is true, then much of their average behaviour, ex hypothesi, makes sense. It’s not a moral failing; you would respond that way too.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple, as a perusal of the paper will reveal. One of the big themes Gillian is interested in in the paper is the idea that the consequences of poverty become progressively embedded via feedback processes. If you start out down one lifestyle path – perhaps for a small but comprehensible reason – the alternative track becomes further and further away and the chance of reaching it, or the point of trying, less and less. This kind of embedding can even become transgenerational, as the behavioural strategies of one generation determine the starting input given to the next. But the big take-home message of the paper is that structural disadvantage is in the explanatory driving seat for the behaviour of the poor. The kinds of interventions, for example for health inequalities, that are of the greatest importance are those that address the structural disadvantages that make poor people likely (whatever they do) to have positive futures they can control and rely on.


Behavioral and Brain Sciences is a peer commentary journal, so we are bating our breaths to see what colleagues in the social as well as biological sciences make of it all. One of the issues in this area is that so many disciplines have something to say about social inequality that it is easy to end up (a) relabelling ideas that in fact already exist in other disciplines; or (b) having ideas that are actually a bit different from the received ideas, but are mis-recognised as being something rather different from what you intend them to be. Let’s hope we have steered between that particular Scylla and Charibdis.



Hitting the Wall & Blue/Orange


longimage_hittingthewallI am very excited about our imminent production of Matthew Warburton’s Hitting the Wall at Northern Stage on November 30th.

In 2012, Wayne Soutter, a middle-aged father of two, attempted to swim the as-yet unconquered sea-channel between the Mull of Kintyre and Ireland. Hitting The Wall is a theatrical recreation of that extraordinary endeavour. Cold seas. Strong winds. Treacherous tides and 50 foot jellyfish. What could possibly go right?

Based on blogs and interviews with Wayne and Paul (the boat captain on the attempt), Hitting The Wall asks why we choose to do things that might better be left undone.

It’s going to be fun evening, with a chance to discuss the mad endeavour (actually, both mad endeavours, the swim and play about the swim) with the creative team afterwards.

You can buy tickets from here.

I am also equally ecstatic to announce that Straw Bear’s next production after that will be Joe Penhall’s extraordinary Blue/Orange, on March 24th and 25th 2017. Blue/Orange is about many things, most especially schizophrenia, race and Welsh rarebit, and was described (when it originally appeared in 2000) as the finest new play in the English language for a generation. We are presenting it in association with Brain Awareness Week. The cast has been finalised. More updates soon.

When methods meet

x160915165623_57372-jpg-pagespeed-ic-ahw2nzeu4iThe Scottish Graduate School of Social Science has made some interesting short films about the different methods available to social scientists, and in particular, whether they can fruitfully be brought together. In one of the films, the ethnographer Sam Hillyard and I discussed classic ethnography and experiments; can they be brought together, how are they different, and in what ways are they alike?

You can access the film and an associated worksheet here.