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

December 22 • 2:00 PM

The Paradox of Women’s Sexuality in Breastfeeding Advocacy and Breast Cancer Campaigns

We capitalize on the sexualization of the breast to raise awareness about breast cancer, yet we cringe at the idea of a woman nursing her child.


December 22 • 1:00 PM

Keep That E-Reader Out of Bed and You’ll Feel Better in the Morning

New research finds e-readers, like other light-emitting electronic devices, can disrupt normal sleep patterns.


December 22 • 12:25 PM

Stop Trying to Be the ‘Next Silicon Valley’

American cities often try to mimic their more economically successful counterparts. A new study suggests that it’s time to stop.


December 22 • 12:00 PM

Pill Mills and the Rise of Controlled Substance Use in Medicare

Despite warnings about abuse, Medicare covered more prescriptions for potent controlled substances in 2012 than it did in 2011. The program’s top prescribers often have faced disciplinary action or criminal charges related to their medical practices.


December 22 • 10:00 AM

Economics at the North Pole: Are Santa’s Elves Slaves?

A pair of economists seek to reconcile two conflicting schools of thought in order to predict what sort of environments increase incentives for labor coercion.


December 22 • 8:00 AM

What Influences Whether Owners Pick Up After Their Dogs?

The presence or absence of suitable receptacles for bags is not the whole picture.


December 22 • 7:04 AM

Coming Soon: This Is How Gangs End


December 22 • 6:00 AM

Politicians Gonna Politic

Is there something to the idea that a politician who no longer faces re-election is free to pursue new policy solutions without needing to kowtow to special interests?


December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


Follow us


Stop Trying to Be the ‘Next Silicon Valley’

American cities often try to mimic their more economically successful counterparts. A new study suggests that it's time to stop.

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

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.