Why do inequality and deprivation produce high crime and low trust?

Benoît De Courson, Daniel Nettle*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

Humans sometimes cooperate to mutual advantage, and sometimes exploit one another. In industrialised societies, the prevalence of exploitation, in the form of crime, is related to the distribution of economic resources: more unequal societies tend to have higher crime, as well as lower social trust. We created a model of cooperation and exploitation to explore why this should be. Distinctively, our model features a desperation threshold, a level of resources below which it is extremely damaging to fall. Agents do not belong to fixed types, but condition their behaviour on their current resource level and the behaviour in the population around them. We show that the optimal action for individuals who are close to the desperation threshold is to exploit others. This remains true even in the presence of severe and probable punishment for exploitation, since successful exploitation is the quickest route out of desperation, whereas being punished does not make already desperate states much worse. Simulated populations with a sufficiently unequal distribution of resources rapidly evolve an equilibrium of low trust and zero cooperation: desperate individuals try to exploit, and non-desperate individuals avoid interaction altogether. Making the distribution of resources more equal or increasing social mobility is generally effective in producing a high cooperation, high trust equilibrium; increasing punishment severity is not.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1937
Number of pages11
JournalScientific Reports
Volume11
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 21 Jan 2021
Externally publishedYes

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