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

October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


Follow us


My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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