Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


You Choose, They Lose: The Psychology of Income Inequality

• June 20, 2012 • 7:00 AM

Reminders that our lives are filled with choices lead people to feel less disturbed about inequality, and less likely to support remedies.

Paper or plastic? PC or Mac? Do you want fries with that? American culture is all about making choices. And two scholars report that mulling over our options affects how we think about economic inequality.

“When the concept of choice was highlighted,” they write, “people (taking part in a series of experiments) were less disturbed by statistics demonstrating wealth inequality, less likely to believe that societal factors contribute to the success of the wealthy, less willing to endorse redistributing educational resources more equally between the rich and the poor, and less willing to endorse increased taxes on the rich.”

The growing gap between rich and poor alarms many policymakers; economists from Alan Greenspan to Paul Krugman have called it a long-term threat to U.S. democracy. Yet proposals that could narrow this divide, such as increased spending on public education or higher taxes on the affluent, seldom get much, if any, traction.

It would be easy to attribute this to the disproportionate influence of the wealthy on our political process. But this research suggests the roots of our inaction can be found in the collective psychology of Americans, virtually all of whom are—in the broadest sense of the term—pro-choice.

Writing in the journal Psychological Science, Krishna Savani of Columbia Business School and Stanford University psychologist Aneeta Rattan describe six experiments. Each was structured similarly: half the participants either listed a series of choices they made over a recent 24-hour period, or pushed a button whenever they noticed an actor in a short video make some sort of choice. The other half performed a mundane exercise that did not involve choosing anything.

All the participants then answered a series of questions about income inequality and/or its possible remedies. In the first experiment, the 46 participants (mean age 40) were asked to react to a set of 10 statements such as: “Between 1990 and 2010, the average worker’s salary has risen less than 5 percent, while the average CEO’s salary has risen by 500 percent.”

After taking into account social class, gender, and political orientation (all of which can influence one’s attitudes on this issue), those who had been thinking about choice were less disturbed by the examples of inequality than those in the neutral condition.

In a subsequent experiment, those with preferences and alternatives on their minds were more likely to support programs aiding all students, but significantly less likely to support similar programs aimed at low-income students (such as free test-preparation materials).

“Thinking in terms of choice did not lead to a generalized reluctance to support governmental spending on public goods,” the researchers write. “Rather, it led participants to specifically oppose policies that entailed redistributing resources from the wealthy to the poor.”

The psychology here is clear enough. One’s success in life is determined partially by one’s life choices, and partially by forces outside of one’s control. If the personal-decision part of that equation is front and center in our minds, we’re more likely to negate or downplay the societal factors that limit one’s options.

“Our research suggests that framing policies in terms of choice, or even incidentally highlighting the concept of choice in discussions about policies, might lead people to oppose policies that are in line with their ultimate ideals,” Savani and Rattan write.

Of course, walking out of Baskin-Robbins after considering the pros and cons of the 31 flavors should have no impact on beliefs regarding wealth, poverty, and personal responsibility. But once it has entered our consciousness, the concept of choice is contagious, and this research suggests it can influence the way we look at larger issues.

After all, answering a pollster’s questions, or marking a ballot, involves picking one alternative over another. It appears this simple dynamic pulls some people in the direction of economic conservatism.

There may be no right choices, but making choices may nudge you to the right.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.


November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


November 24 • 10:00 AM

Why Are Patients Drawn to Certain Doctors?

We look for an emotional fit between our physicians and ourselves—and right now, that’s the best we can do.


November 24 • 8:00 AM

Why Do We Elect Corrupt Politicians?

Voters, it seems, are willing to forgive—over and over again—dishonest yet beloved politicians if they think the job is still getting done.



November 24 • 6:00 AM

They Steal Babies, Don’t They?

Ethiopia, the Hague, and the rise and fall of international adoption. An exclusive investigation of internal U.S. State Department documents describing how humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law.


November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


Follow us


Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.