Despite extensive scholarly interest in the association between economic inequality and political violence, the micro-level mechanisms through which the former influences the latter are not well understood.
Drawing on pioneering theories of political violence, social psychological research on relative deprivation, and prospect theory from behavioral economics, we examine individual-level processes that underpin the relationship between inequality and political violence. We present two arguments: despite being a key explanatory variable in existing research, perceived lower economic status vis-à-vis other individuals (an indicator of relative deprivation) is unlikely to motivate people to participate in violence; by contrast, although virtually unexplored, a projected decrease in one’s own economic status (prospective decremental deprivation) is likely to motivate violence. Multilevel analyses of probability samples from many African countries provide evidence to support these claims. Based on this, we posit that focusing on changes in living conditions, rather than the status quo, is key for understanding political violence.