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Keeping up with the Joneses could beĀ tearing America apart, according to a new Yale University study.

During the study, researchers in the school'sĀ Institute for Network Science placed 1,462 test subjects into ā€œsocietiesā€ with three levels of economic inequality. They were given an initial endowment,Ā and played 10 rounds of a game in which they couldĀ choose whether to "cooperate" or "defect." Cooperators optedĀ toĀ reduce their own wealth to increase the wealth of all neighbors. DefectorsĀ decided toĀ pay no cost and provide no benefits to others.

When people didnā€™t know their neighborsā€™ financial statuses, they cooperated and interacted much better with each other, the researchers found. When they were aware of neighbors' wealth, cooperation halted and inequality increased.

Dave Rand, aĀ co-author of the study, which was published in the journal Nature, told me he was surprised at how much behavior changed when wealth became visible.

"You couldn't do that much to punish the rich for not cooperating," he explained, "so seeing others making more than you makes you disgruntled, because thereā€™s nothing you can really do about it."


Here's the chart that helps explain the results. All the dashed lines, representing "invisible" wealth, trendĀ lower than the full lines, which show "visible" wealth. The data are chartedĀ using the Gini coefficient, a common yardstick forĀ inequality.

Nishi et al. via Nature, Yale

TheĀ visible gaps in wealth could beĀ setting off neurological and psychological processes that undercut social cooperation, the study suggested, asĀ people may begin to perceive their financial status as a competition.


ā€œThese are complicated interactions,ā€ Akihiro Nishi, an associate research scientist at Yale, said in a pressĀ release. ā€œI would say, ā€˜If you are watching othersā€™ wealth, watch out.ā€

Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.