Inequality from the Bottom Up: Toward a “Psychological Shift” Model of Decision-Making Under Socioeconomic Threat

  • Jennifer Sheehy-SkeffingtonEmail author


A full understanding of the negative impact of economic inequality must consider the perspective of those at the bottom of society. This chapter focuses on how the experience of low socioeconomic status shapes decision-making processes. It begins with the assumption that life on a low income in an unequal society involves exposure to resource scarcity, instability, and low subjective social status. It argues that these conditions act as socioecological cues, triggering a “psychological shift” in the domains of appraisal (lowering perceived personal control), regulation (inducing a focus on the present and on threats), and cognition (tuning cognitive resources toward addressing pressing needs). These psychological shifts, and the resulting decision-making patterns, can be understood as adaptive in the context of socioeconomic threat, even if they have harmful long-term consequences. Developing a systematic understanding of them thus enables us to chart some of the more subtle, yet pervasive, influences of the related societal conditions of poverty and inequality.


Inequality Decision-making Resource scarcity Social status Economic instability Psychology of poverty Personal control Self-regulation Executive functioning 


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.London School of Economics and Political ScienceLondonUK

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