Psychology Colloquium

Gerard Alzate

Villanova’s Department of Psychology hosted Harvard Business School Professor Michael Norton for its last psychology colloquium in front of an audience consisting of Villanova students, professors, researchers and other guests on Dec. 5, 2014 . In his seminar entitled “Spreading the Health and Wealth,” Professor Norton talked about the different angles from which society perceives one of its biggest issues today—income inequality and distribution.

Upon the realization that income inequality and wealth distribution have become two of today’s biggest global issues, Norton and his colleagues took interest in the different ways people perceived the issue at hand.

Accordingly, they created a data collection methodology that they called “The General Approach.” Using this method, they formulated survey questions for tens of thousands of participants, from all financial and political backgrounds and cross-referenced this data to compare and analyze what people thought society was like, what society should be and what it really was.

Members of the audience most likely had their own ideas and estimates for questions like “What percent of the wealth do the top 20 percent of Americans own?,” “What percent of the wealth do the bottom 20 percent of Americans own?” or “What is the ratio between the earnings of a CEO and those of an average worker?”

Regardless of the question, the “ooohh” sounds that were heard suggested that audience members were surprised to see the real disparity that has separated the rich and the poor over the past decades; as of 2014, it was found that the top 20 percent of Americans owned about 84 percent of all the income in the country. Surprisingly, however, among all the graphs and charts Norton presented, he and his colleagues found that citizens never described their ideal society as a “social utopia,” in which income was perfectly equally distributed and everybody owned the same amount of wealth.

Those belonging to the wealthiest bracket typically preferred things to remain as they were, and those who belonged to the bottom 20 percent idealized that they would own majority of the income in the country, which simply reverses the social hierarchy that exist today. Norton’s talk piqued many curiosities and interests as numerous questions were asked during and after the presentation. Moreover, colloquiums such as Norton’s are very valuable for the insight that we college students get into some of the real-world issues that we may not constantly be exposed to within the walls of our classroom.

This is a key element to everyone’s college life as these are the opportunities we get to learn and perform outside our lecture halls. Talks such as these lead us to take our own standpoint on similar issues, create a community of differing opinions, and use our resources to act upon things we think should change.

One need not be an economics major or have a business degree to understand the burdens being put on millions of people because of the inequality of income and wealth distribution that exists in today’s society. As the media-dependent generation, all of us have seen the workings of “Occupy Wall Street” on news channels or read the controversial slogan “We are the 99 percent” on articles and social media.

While we are not obliged to take sides in the debate of whether or not wealth should be more equally distributed, such issues should prompt us to think about the world we will all soon set foot in ourselves.