17 June 2022

People Opt for Inequality

Welcome back. In a 2019 Pew Research Center survey of 6,878 nationally representative adults, 61% said there was too much economic inequality in the U.S.

Pew Research Center survey of Americans on economic inequality (modified from : www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/01/09/).

Most Americans believe the U.S. must take steps to achieve greater equality, but policies meant to do that are often seen as discriminatory or threatening to members of the advantaged group. That reaction has been attributed to various causes, including fear of losing their status, political partisanship and overt prejudice.

A recently published study provides evidence of an underlying cause that crosses ideologies. Researchers affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University found that people in advantaged groups are prone to misperceive equality as less for them. They’re inclined to think that they benefit from inequality.

Testing Equality-Enhancing Policies
In the first series of a total of nine experiments, the researchers had participants review various equality-enhancing policies that would provide additional resources (e.g., salary, jobs) to a disadvantaged group (e.g., Latino Americans, disabled people, women, ex-felons) without changing the resources provided to the advantaged group (e.g., White Americans, people without a disability, men, non-felons).

For example, 594 White participants read that White homebuyers received roughly $386.4 billion in mortgage loans from banks while Latino homebuyers received about $12.6 billion.

Participants then read proposals to increase, decrease or not change resource access for the Latino homebuyers without changing resource access for the White homebuyers.

Finally, participants rated how the proposals would affect White homebuyers’ chances of getting mortgage funding.

White test participants’ response to increasing (left), decreasing (center) or not changing Latino homebuyers’ access to mortgage loans without changing access for White homebuyers (modified from www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.abm2385).
Misperceiving Equality
Participants misperceived increasing loans to Latinos as being harmful to White homebuyers’ resource access and decreasing or not changing loans to Latinos as improving Whites’ access to resources.

This misperception held when the researchers tested policies that benefited both the majority and minority groups, when the benefits to society were mentioned, and when the majority group members were advised directly that anyone who wanted access to a loan could get one, that there was no limit on the amount available.

The only policies that removed the majority participants’ misperceptions were those that enhanced equality between members of their own group (e.g., when a group of male participants considered reducing pay disparity between men, rather than between men and women).

Other Experiments
In another experiment, the researchers surveyed California voters on a 2020 proposition to remove the ban on considering race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in public employment, education and contracting. The majority of Whites and Asians misperceived the measure, believing it would reduce their access to education and job opportunities.

The final two experiments showed that advantaged participants’ misperceptions led them to vote against equality-enhancing policies that would financially benefit them, instead favoring inequality-enhancing policies that financially hurt them.

Wrap Up
Overall, the study provides insight into the prevalence and consequences of misperceiving equality as zero sum--a gain for one group must necessarily be a loss for another. People placed more importance on how they were doing relative to other groups than how they were doing in absolute terms.

The researchers conclude that the advantaged group members’ misperception is one reason why inequality in America and around the world continues to constrain the economic, psychological and physical well-being of both the fortunate and unfortunate.

Thanks for stopping by.

Pew survey on economic inequality: www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/01/09/
Study of misperception and equality in Science Advances journal: www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.abm2385
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/951951

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