‘The Inner Level’ (Wilkinson and Pickett) – a review

Date Posted: Friday 12th June 2020

book clubFeminist EconomicsFeminist Economics book clubgender equalityInequalityreview

A book review of:

The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-being, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

Publisher: Penguin Books, 2018

by Anna Johnston

It’s time to level the playing field

The review for this book as part of the ongoing feminist economics book club has been planned since last year. However, it seems impossible to write without situating it within the current context.

It is early summer, we are in the midst of a global pandemic and a grassroots political uprising to address structural racism. These issues hang against a backdrop of global climate change. It is within this geopolitical climate that this review for The Inner Level has been written. It probably doesn’t sound too cheery, but the book ends on positive possibilities- so this review will aim for the same!

In the UK, women are the majority of people living in poverty.[1] Lone parents (90% of which are women)[2] and BAME groups are also more likely to live in poverty.[3] Although Covid-19 was at first described as ‘the great leveller’, across all metrics the crisis has in fact exacerbated existing inequalities, including ethnicity, class and gender. Now more than ever then, we must ask: what are the consequences of living in an increasingly unequal society? This question lies at the heart of The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-being, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

A follow up to the 2009 book The Spirit Level, The Inner Level argues that inequality worsens many social problems including mental and physical health, levels of child well-being, violence, the number of people in prison, drug and alcohol addiction. The book uses extensive comparative psychological data and research from around the globe to set out a convincing argument that the more unequal the society, the higher the rates of individual and societal distress.

But how does inequality cause so many social problems?

Wilkinson and Pickett frame their answer around the existence of two social strategies for survival buried deep in the human psyche. One is based on friendship and cooperation (egalitarian social strategy- seen in more equal societies), the other on superiority and inferiority (Dominance Behavioural System). Within the Dominance Behaviour System, people act to receive positive or powerful social, political or economic status. With rank in the social hierarchy being key to how much power one has access to, income and material wealth become strong markers for determining one’s position on the scale.

Within this model, competition for power leads to a set of dominance and subordination behaviours, centring on pride and shame. The book illustrates many studies which show that in more unequal societies, this competitive distrust causes withdrawal from community life resulting in a range of mental and physical health issues, and anti-social behaviours.

Here in the UK, we see the dominance framework in action. Feelings of powerlessness for those most disadvantaged can lead to self-doubt, shame, sensitivity to threats and a fear of rejection as a result of a personal failure to ‘succeed’. For those at the top, increased sense of power and control increases positive emotion, causing faster and less inhibited thinking. This can lead to narcissism and delusions of grandeur based on a belief that their high status has been ‘earned’.

“Perhaps the most likely explanation of why inequality increases status anxiety across entire societies is because it increases the sense that people at the top of the social ladder are extremely important and those at the bottom are worthless, and, as money becomes more entrenched as a measure of people’s worth, it makes us all more worried about where we come in the hierarchy.”

[The Inner Level, page 35]

So, how do we, as a society understand and justify this internalised belief that some people are more deserving than others? This comes down to what Wilkinson and Pickett brilliantly expose as the myth of meritocracy. Rather than being a natural and just process whereby the cleverest and ‘best’ in society rise to the top, they chart how in fact privilege begets privilege and inequality ‘creates intergenerational cycles of disadvantage and wastes vast swathes of human capabilities, talents and potential’.

The range of evidence to support this claim is vast. Wilkinson and Pickett use a wealth of studies to show that growing up in poverty in itself is damaging to cognitive development. Further, it is reinforced by the behaviour of those around us as young adults. Research found that children from poor neighbourhoods were consistently given worse grades than their more affluent counterparts when the child was known to the marker, compared to when they are marked blind. Similarly, black children were systematically marked down. This strongly indicates systemic unconscious stereotyping by class and ethnicity.

However, the book also shows how internalised knowledge of social hierarchy in itself affects performance. Referencing numerous studies, Wilkinson and Pickett highlight that people perform less well on tests when they are made even subtly aware that they belong to a group known stereotypically for poor performance in particular areas. We know that this is also the case for gender inequality; girls perform poorer in maths when it’s reinforced that boys are better. From the lack of stimulus provided to younger children from disadvantaged backgrounds, to teacher bias, and unequal resourcing of schools, even the brightest young minds are fated to fall behind their peers from better off families.

“Brain imaging techniques, and growing knowledge of the malleability of the human brain, have made it clear that the most important differences in ability result from an individual’s position in the social hierarchy, rather than being determinants of it”

[The Inner Level pg. 29]

Wilkinson and Pickett recognise that a drive towards creating greater equality should be at the heart of social policy, and that social justice and environmental justice are interconnected. To bring global emissions within a sustainable limit, societies must limit growth, and the book argues that this is possible through structural change which privileges democratic economic organisation (for example, through cooperative business models).

The Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated many existing inequalities including ethnicity, gender and class. As we plan our recovery, we would do well to take heed from this book. If we truly want to ‘build back better’, we cannot return to business as usual but must create effective change to address and end inequality in the UK.


[1] WBG (2018) The Female Face of Poverty (https://bit.ly/34jMVZa)

[2] Child Poverty Action Group (2019) Child Poverty Facts and Figures (https://bit.ly/2U5PI4u)

[3] WBG and Runnymede (2017) Intersecting Inequalities: The impact of austerity on Black and Minority Ethnic women in the UK (http://bit.ly/2lE07Wn)