The Broken Ladder Book Summary By Keith Payne

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The Broken Ladder (2017) is a book that examines the profound effects of increasing inequality in the world.

It makes an impactful argument that everyone feels poorer, not just those living in poverty, when the wealthy become even wealthier.

The psychological, physical and social repercussions of rising income gaps are thoroughly researched and explored in this powerful book.

By giving readers insight into how economic disparities can fragment society and stifle individual growth, The Broken Ladder brings together a range of escalating effects from around the world to prove its point.

An essential read for anyone concerned about narrowing the gap between privileged and disadvantaged communities alike.

The Broken Ladder Book

Book Name: The Broken Ladder (How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die)

Author(s): Keith Payne

Rating: 4.2/5

Reading Time: 20 Minutes

Categories: Psychology

Author Bio

Keith Payne is a renowned personality in the academic worlds of psychology and neuroscience.

He serves as a professor at the University of North Carolina and is an expert in the psychology of inequality.

His invaluable research on wealth distribution has made headlines in some of the biggest newspapers, such as The Atlantic and The New York Times, while his educational writings have been featured in Scientific American and Psychology Today.


Payne's extensive knowledge makes him one of the most respected personalities in this field and one that millions have relied on for his valuable insight.

Uncovering The Cognitive Impact Of Income Inequality: Why Feeling Poor Can Be Just As Damaging As Actually Being Poor

Income Inequality

In The Broken Ladder, readers will discover the far-reaching consequences of inequality.

From increased stress levels and a shorter lifespan, to changes in how you think and behave, this book goes beyond surface level disparities, with research that helps illuminate some of the more complex effects that inequality has on individuals and society.

From looking at why someone paid $28,000 for an old grilled cheese sandwich to examining why low social status leads to increased stress levels, readers will get an eye-opening look into how widespread the impacts of inequality really are.

Furthermore, this book offers new insights into some of the top earners in professional sports and how their immense salaries affect other players’ ability to command fair wages.

Ultimately, this book serves as a clear reminder that equal pay should be a priority throughout all sectors — enabling broader positive global change for everyone.

The Power Of Comparisons: Why Feeling Poor Has Little To Do With Actual Income

It is often said that feeling poor has little to do with your material assets, but more so with how you compare yourself to those around you.

This is exactly the concept that’s explained in The Broken Ladder- the idea of comparing yourself to those who are better off and consequently thinking of yourself as poorer or less successful.

Evidence shows that only a small fraction of people who identify as poor are actually in a severely disadvantaged economic situation.

So why do so many feeling like they’re barely keeping up (or worse, falling behind)? The answer lies in comparison- people naturally limit themselves based on the lifestyle of their peers and those around them.

Take our hypothetical example of a family doctor earning $200,000 a year – by today’s standards an impressive amount of money.

Yet this individual may feel poor if compared to her neighbor- a brain surgeon earning double their salary.

No matter the material circumstances, these feelings will persist until one feels relatively equal to the other economically.

The discovery here is that due to a lack of sensors for measuring true wealth and poverty, it is up to us as individuals to accurately depict what ‘enough’ means; whether it be material belongings or financial stability.

It all comes down to how you view others- so don’t forget, wealth is relative!

The Wealth Gap Mirrors The Growing Sense Of Injustice And Inequality Among The Poor

It’s not just the objectively poor who feel the devastating effects of poverty – even those who may be viewed as better off than the poorest can face negative consequences when they perceive themselves to be poorer than others.

This is highlighted in The Broken Ladder: How Social Mobility Defines Our Success, where author Keith Payne explains how even people in better-off situations still suffer negative personal and communal outcomes when they feel poor relative to others.

This was illustrated through an experiment by primatologist Sarah Brosnan which showed that when two monkeys participating in an exchange game observed one being treated unlike the other, they felt a sense of injustice and could no longer accept the original terms of the trade.

The sentiment that one is worse off than others because of their economic standing can often breed feelings of despair and unhappiness.

This kind of ‘relative poverty’ can have severe implications such as depression, anxiety, obesity, cardiovascular issues, underperforming at work and decision making influenced by conspiracy theories.

Ultimately what this highlights is how much we are socially attuned to observing our peers’ success or lack thereof and comparing it to our own experiences – causing us to feel discontent despite our current standings in life.

The Inequality Gap Can Lead Us Towards Risky Behavior And Poor Financial Decisions

Financial Decisions

Inequality has been linked to some very extreme behaviors, from encouraging risky investments to driving people away from taking sensible precautions.

This is all driven by the way that inequality affects the way we perceive and interact with our environments as humans.

For example, a recent study showed that when participants were given a comparative score indicating their financial standing next to similar people, those who felt relatively poor were more likely to take risks they wouldn’t normally take – such as gambling the money they were given.

Furthermore, those made to feel poor preferred quick payouts even at the cost of lower overall amounts.

Those felt relatively rich chose instead to wait and receive larger but delayed payouts in the future.

The data shows us that despite no actual difference in real-life incomes, perceptions can affect our decision-making processes profoundly – making us take part in activities which may be risky or destructive in the long run.

Inequality changes how we think and act by encouraging us towards hazardous behavior – something we must be conscious of if we want a secure and safe world for everyone.

The Growing Divide: How Rising Inequality Is Fueling Partisanship And Disenfranchisement

Inequality in our societies is leading to a great deal of social division and political partisanship.

To put this to the test, researchers designed an experiment to see how people would react in different situations.

They had participants given real-life seed money to invest in stocks and then either told they had earned more than their peers or less than their peers (in reality, they had all made the same gain).

Those who thought they’d earned more voted for cutting taxes while those who believed they’d earned less voted to increase them.

This isn’t surprising since people usually vote based on their own economic interests.

What is fascinating, however, is that those who thought they were high performers wanted low performers excluded from decision making—essentially taking away their right to vote.

Meanwhile, those who thought they were lower earners wanted everyone to have an equal voting power even if it didn’t align with their own views.

This shows just how far inequality can go in dividing people into separate camps and creating political polarization.

Unless we address inequality further, it’s unlikely this type of divide will improve––unless we admit that it’s a problem at all and take steps accordingly.

The Impact Of Social Status On Health: Why Feeling Poor Is As Bad As Being Poor

It’s a well-known fact that people in wealthier countries tend to have longer life expectancies than those in poorer countries.

But it turns out that, within wealthy countries, the subjective experience of an individual’s status – rather than their actual income – is the number one predictor of health.

What this means is that, in societies where inequality runs highest, health outcomes suffer most of all.

This has been definitively shown in studies involving laboratory monkeys at Wake Forest University and more general evidence across many different kinds of populations.

People living in unequal societies aren’t necessarily dying from acute attacks related to “I feel poor” syndrome; more common are conditions associated with high levels of stress and other factors like diminished support structures which leave these individuals highly vulnerable.

It goes to show how powerful the natural hierarchies we form can be on our wellbeing, whether it involves monkeys or humans.

Crucially, this suggests that improving equality could go a long way toward bettering public health around the world.

How Inequality And Powerlessness Make Our Brains See Meaning In Random Patterns


The Broken Ladder explores the link between inequality and our ability (or inability) to discern patterns in reality.

Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky have done extensive research on this connection, finding that those who feel powerless or lack control over their lives tend to be more likely to see non-existent images or buy into conspiracy theories.

In one of their experiments, participants were asked to recount a detailed story about either feeling powerful or powerless, then shown images of random markings they were told some contained a hidden picture (which wasn’t true).

Those who had just told a story about feeling powerless were three times more likely to see the non-existent images than those who had just told stories about feeling in control.

These results demonstrated how even fleeting feelings of powerlessness can impact our perception of reality.

This is an important issue because as our societies continue to become increasingly unequal, it has real consequences for how we interpret the world around us.

It’s easy to dismiss seeing Mary on your toast or Jesus in a tree as harmless, but the truth is that without recognizing inequalities in power, wealth, and status, we risk transferring that collective powerlessness into larger, much darker movements.

Inequality Undermines Performance And Satisfaction In The Workplace

Inequality in the workplace harms both productivity and employee satisfaction.

This is an important lesson to learn, especially with rising pay differentials that are pushing inequality through the roof.

One example of this lies in Major League Baseball.

A study by economist Matt Bloom revealed that teams with higher levels of inequality – namely, higher salaries for a few players at the top – rarely won more games, compared to their more equitable counterparts.

Even more surprisingly, even those top-paid players performed better when their salaries were in line with those of their teammates.

Employees on these high-inequality teams also suffered from heightened stress, particularly among members lower down the corporate ladder whose wages remained stagnant while those of leadership skyrocketed.

Needless to say, workers who suffer from too much stress fail to reach their peak performance levels.

So not only does inequality lead to poor performance from a team-wide standpoint, it can also ravage individual productivity as well as decrease employee morale and satisfaction.

The takeaway here is that if we don’t address issues of inequality head on, then the inevitable result will be poor performance and widespread dissatisfaction within our workplaces – something nobody wants or needs!

We Can Take Steps To Mitigate The Negative Effects Of Living With Income Inequality

Income Inequality

We can’t deny that income inequality is real, and it seems to only be getting worse.

But we don’t have to remain helpless in the face of such a difficult problem.

There are concrete steps we can all take to mitigate the negative effects of living with inequality, both for ourselves and for society as a whole.

Firstly, we need to work towards reducing income inequality itself.

This means organizing and voting for policies which will not simply raise the lowest rungs of the ladder, but also lower those at the top.

This is a challenging task, but a crucial part of making any real change happen.

In addition to aiming for wholesale political changes, we can also work on our own attitudes towards comparison – particularly when it comes to thinking about our economic status.

We often compare ourselves unconsciously to others around us, and this can lead to damaging feelings of being inferior.

To combat this feeling, it’s important to focus on what you already do have and reflect on how much better your life is than it was ten years ago.

Additionally, reflecting on your values in life – outside of money related matters – can help you gain perspective on your true worth and how much money really does (or does not) matter.

Ultimately there are things that each of us can do – individually and collectively –when it comes to mitigating the negative impact of living with inequality.

Putting effort into understanding both our own attitudes as well as taking action politically is key in creating an equitable future for everyone involved.

Wrap Up

The Broken Ladder, by Keith Payne, provides a comprehensive view as to why inequality exists in the world and outlines systemic changes that need to be implemented in order to reduce inequality.

He argues that fighting poverty alone is not enough and that inequality itself needs to be targeted and reduced.

The book offers actionable advice for individuals who want to reduce their own feelings of comparison with others.

It emphasizes the importance of determining your own values and desires rather than comparing yourself to those around you.

Furthermore, it explains how talking yourself through thought exercises can help you break the habit of comparing yourself to others and focus on determining your own values.

In summary, The Broken Ladder helps us understand how systemic inequality undermines our well-being and provides us with actionable advice on how we can free ourselves from the feeling of comparison with other people.

Arturo Miller

Hi, I am Arturo Miller, the Chief Editor of this blog. I'm a passionate reader, learner and blogger. Motivated by the desire to help others reach their fullest potential, I draw from my own experiences and insights to curate blogs.

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