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Tuesday January 31st

UNC professor Keith Payne speaks about his research, childhood and racial inequality

Keith Payne, professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience
Buy Photos Keith Payne, professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience

Keith Payne, a professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, spoke to staff writer Marine Elia about his research on the psychology of inequality featured in a recent The New Yorker article. Since his childhood, he has been observant of wealth gaps between himself and others around him.

The Daily Tar Heel: I’m just going to jump right in, what was your childhood like? 

Keith Payne: My childhood, well, I grew up in a rural area in Western Kentucky and, I don’t know, I don’t have a lot to compare it to. When you’re a child you don’t realize — I always knew we didn’t have much money, it wasn’t until I got a little bit older, maybe late grade school, and I realized that we had a lot less than other people. That’s just sort of a cliche that we were, you know, poor but we didn’t know it. I think it’s very difficult past a certain age for a child to be poor because sooner or later that inequality becomes very salient to kids. 

DTH: What were the different types of inequality that you would witness on a daily basis?

KP: Well one thing that I would witness were physical sort of possessions: clothing and accessories and things like that differentiated the kids in my school that were the haves from the have-nots. And in my context, that also seemed to go along with accents. A lot of us poorer kids seemed to have our parents' southern drawls and richer kids seemed to have lost their accents or not have accents. As far as the clothing and things like that go, looking back it’s surprising because I went to Catholic School and we all wore school uniforms. The intent of uniforms is to minimize sorts of different clothing but kids who wear uniforms find ways to express their individuality whether it’s jewelry or brightly colored socks or whatever the case may be and somehow even with the uniforms, the socioeconomic differences across kids shined through.  

DTH: How did your past influence you, if at all, for your profession to be a psychologist and then after a professor?

KP: You know that’s hard for me to answer because I can only tell you in retrospect because I never made any decisions to become a psychologist or to become a social psychologist consciously based on my background, other than the fact that I think every teenager, or adolescent comes to realize at some point that a lot of the adults around them are hypocritical in a lot of ways. Adolescents are usually very sensitive to hypocrisy. That was certainly the case for me and I became fascinated by the distinctions between what people would say explicitly and in terms of professing fairness and equality — important values — and yet at the same time they would behave in ways that would be fairly prejudiced and biased and so that distinction between what people say and what people do was always fascinating to me and that ended up leading me to study implicit bias, which is about the ways that people can unintentionally discriminate even if they intend to be fair or if they profess to be fair.

DTH: Could you give an example of the kind of hypocrisy that you witness? 

KP: So, growing up, I would witness the adults around me, family members, that would on the one hand lecture us children to be polite and treat everybody with kindness, and respect and a moment later they would tell an off-color joke or use racial epithets or various kinds of off-hand casual racism. And so those are the kinds of ordinary, everyday hypocrisies that entered my attention.  

DTH: But did it change your perception of your family as well?

KP: I think probably it did. My most vivid memories are about how I felt about myself and in my immediate school context and my classmates. But, yeah I think it made me more reluctant to have friends over to my house. And I probably became, in some ways embarrassed of my family in ways that a lot of adolescents become embarrassed of their family, but that was exaggerated for me because I was worried that our house wasn’t enough and that my family wasn’t wealthy enough and that had an added impact.

DTH: At what age did you rid yourself of those feelings? 

KP: You know that’s a good question I don’t know, I think it lasted into adulthood before I was able to appreciate my family and my upbringing in the context of who they are. And I think it probably includes all throughout college at least.

DTH: Looking back from your past and your research, how do you hope to make an impact on the students you teach using what you’ve learned and studied?

KP: Well one of the things that I try to always teach in my classes and when I’m mentoring undergraduate and graduate students, is that when it comes to people’s behaviors, our behaviors are usually influenced by our subjective perceptions and feelings, and those subjective perceptions and feelings are shaped by the context we’re in. So, I think we’re used to thinking about poverty and inequality like economists — just thinking about literal poverty. Just thinking about the decisions we make, it doesn't matter how much money is in the bank account so much as whether we feel rich or poor at that moment. And those feelings about poverty usually have more to do with the kinds of comparisons we make to other people than the literal monetary amounts on a bank collection.

DTH: And how do you think that the psychology of inequality affects entrance to the university?

KP: I think that people get a sense of where they are on the social ladder and that defines where they think they belong and where they think their options are. So, if you feel further down the ladder, it makes people less likely to apply to more prestigious schools, it makes them less likely to apply to college at all, even with academically talented students. And we know that students who are high performing high school students who come from poor families are much less likely to enroll, or even apply, to college than equally high performing students from middle-class families. And that is a powerful way that people’s socioeconomic status in some ways defeats them before they ever even get a chance to start.

DTH: In The New Yorker article, you mentioned how people who are poor tend to take greater risks and sort of gamble those risks. But you’re saying how it can also go the opposite way: how they won’t take risks, they won't apply to these schools because of their socioeconomic position?

KP: There are different kinds of risks that people take. When people are feeling poor, what they tend to do is focus on the immediate future — the present — and ignore the distant future. They tend to make impulsive decisions, that’s not crazy, it makes sense. If you have nothing, you prioritize your immediate needs to get through today. But on the other hand, in a modern economy like ours, your long term success involves investing in the future, going to college or delaying gratification enough to study while you’re in high school or with other kinds of activities you do today to prepare for the future, that kind of short term focus becomes self-defeating. For a lot of low-income students, investing money and time and forgoing a job now to go to college for four years seems like a very risky long term investment, even though we know its one of the best investments you can make long term.

DTH: What do you hope to solve or contribute to with your research? 

KP: One of the things I want people to understand is the difference between poverty and inequality.  Even when people are not poor, high inequality makes the average person feel poor, and start making more short term decisions. It contributes to more health problems, more crime, and all of these are effects and things that we typically think of with being poor, but there proven more by inequality than by poverty. It’s hard for a person to get themselves out of poverty, but when we’re talking about inequality, we’re talking about a quality of the overall economic system. If we want to make changes to the distribution of wealth and the overall economic system, then the responsibility doesn't just fall on the poor to get themselves out of poverty, but the responsibility falls on all of us to make wise choices about the policies that we advocate in our everyday lives.

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