Project

The Psychology of Inequality

Goal: This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 703316.

In January 2015, the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, identified deepening socioeconomic inequality as the most pressing challenge facing the world. High inequality is linked to numerous social and economic problems (e.g. higher violent crime and greater financial instability). Concern for these problems is not only restricted to highly-educated, socio-political elites (e.g. the WEF). Large-scale surveys in several countries have shown that people generally have a preference for greater equality . However, despite these broadly shared egalitarian ideals, people often oppose policies aimed at reducing inequality and support policies that would have the opposite effect . I will call this the principle-implementation gap in attitudes towards inequality. In a dramatic recent example of this problem, a proposal in Switzerland that would have restricted CEO pay, was rejected by 65% of voters, despite the fact that the ratio of highest to lowest paid Swiss citizens has increased from 6:1 to 43:1 in the past three decades . In democratic countries, public opinion on these issues matters. If people do not support policies to reduce inequality, solving this problem through the political process becomes extremely difficult. Therefore, I propose that understanding how modern democracies can tackle the problem of inequality requires a thorough analysis of the psychological processes that produce the principle-implementation gap in public opinion. This is the primary aim of the present project.

On the face of it, addressing this gap might seem merely a matter of public education: If people understand the logic of the proposed policy solutions, their attitudes will change to align with their egalitarian values. However, decades of psychological research on attitude change has shown that just having accurate information is not enough . For example, studying a related phenomenon – the principle-implementation gap in racial attitudes – psychologists have found that there are various social constraints, cognitive biases, and psychological motives that prevent people from translating their principles of racial equality into support for policies to reduce systemic racism . Applying these insights to current work on inequality from the disciplines of sociology, political science and economics, the present project will lay the foundations for an integrated theory of the Psychology of Inequality. This multidisciplinary endeavour will provide insights to policy makers, advocates and educators about how to communicate the problem of inequality to the general public in a way that maximises awareness and engagement. These insights will also be applicable to understanding public opinion on other, similarly complex issues of resource distribution that face modern societies (e.g. international trade, humanitarian interventions). Thus, the current project will shed light on how some of the biggest global issues of our time can be addressed through the democratic process.

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Project log

Danny Osborne
added a research item
The current chapter highlights the implications of the scars of inequality by first reviewing some common indices of economic inequality. We then discuss research on public attitudes toward inequality and examine the effects of societal-level inequities on various outcomes. Within this section, we focus on how the ever-expanding disparities between the rich and the poor undermine the health and wellbeing of citizens, as well as core components of democracy. Next, we offer a psychological explanation for why macro-level inequality is harmful, and conclude by discussing the prospects for change. Although a comprehensive review of these literatures is impossible, we provide the reader with key starting points for further exploration into the attitudinal and societal consequences of the rising gap between the wealthy and the poor.
Nikhil Sengupta
added 2 research items
In capitalist societies, individuals who occupy the highest positions in the economic hierarchy feature prominently in the political discourse under the moniker of the One Percent. However, little is known about how the psychology of One Percent might differ from that of the average person. Using a large, nationally representative sample in New Zealand (N = 14,650), we aimed to fill this gap examining the political attitudes and subjective wellbeing of the top one percent of the income distribution. We found that, compared to general public, the One Percent in New Zealand more strongly legitimize the political and economic systems in society, and express lower support for redistributive taxation. They also report higher life satisfaction, self-esteem and belongingness compared to everyone else. Thus, the One Percent benefit not only economically and politically from the current system, but also psychologically. Moreover, their political beliefs serve to bolster the inequality from which they benefit.
A noticeable feature of the political discourse accompanying the rise of nationalism in white‐majority countries is that white people fare worse than other ethnic groups in their societies. However, it is unclear based on the extant literature why group‐based relative deprivation (GRD) would correlate with majority‐group nationalism. Here, we propose that the psychological function of nationalism for majority‐group members lies in its ability to assuage the negative feelings arising from GRD. Accordingly, in a New Zealand national probability sample (N = 15,607), we found that GRD among whites was negatively associated with well‐being. However, we also found an opposing indirect association mediated by nationalism. GRD was associated with higher nationalism, which was in turn associated with higher well‐being. These findings suggest that endorsing beliefs about national superiority is one way a nation’s dominant ethnic group can cope with the negative psychological consequences of perceiving that their group is deprived.
Nikhil Sengupta
added a project goal
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 703316.
In January 2015, the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, identified deepening socioeconomic inequality as the most pressing challenge facing the world. High inequality is linked to numerous social and economic problems (e.g. higher violent crime and greater financial instability). Concern for these problems is not only restricted to highly-educated, socio-political elites (e.g. the WEF). Large-scale surveys in several countries have shown that people generally have a preference for greater equality . However, despite these broadly shared egalitarian ideals, people often oppose policies aimed at reducing inequality and support policies that would have the opposite effect . I will call this the principle-implementation gap in attitudes towards inequality. In a dramatic recent example of this problem, a proposal in Switzerland that would have restricted CEO pay, was rejected by 65% of voters, despite the fact that the ratio of highest to lowest paid Swiss citizens has increased from 6:1 to 43:1 in the past three decades . In democratic countries, public opinion on these issues matters. If people do not support policies to reduce inequality, solving this problem through the political process becomes extremely difficult. Therefore, I propose that understanding how modern democracies can tackle the problem of inequality requires a thorough analysis of the psychological processes that produce the principle-implementation gap in public opinion. This is the primary aim of the present project.
On the face of it, addressing this gap might seem merely a matter of public education: If people understand the logic of the proposed policy solutions, their attitudes will change to align with their egalitarian values. However, decades of psychological research on attitude change has shown that just having accurate information is not enough . For example, studying a related phenomenon – the principle-implementation gap in racial attitudes – psychologists have found that there are various social constraints, cognitive biases, and psychological motives that prevent people from translating their principles of racial equality into support for policies to reduce systemic racism . Applying these insights to current work on inequality from the disciplines of sociology, political science and economics, the present project will lay the foundations for an integrated theory of the Psychology of Inequality. This multidisciplinary endeavour will provide insights to policy makers, advocates and educators about how to communicate the problem of inequality to the general public in a way that maximises awareness and engagement. These insights will also be applicable to understanding public opinion on other, similarly complex issues of resource distribution that face modern societies (e.g. international trade, humanitarian interventions). Thus, the current project will shed light on how some of the biggest global issues of our time can be addressed through the democratic process.