|Preference for Choice Tempers Public Concern for Wealth Inequality|
|Nation - Finance|
|TS-Si News Service|
|Monday, 02 July 2012 09:00|
Stanford, CA, USA. Americans advocate a more equal distribution of wealth and a strong middle class while often voting against narrowing the gap in incomes. Why?
Wealth inequality has become a prominent theme in discussions about politics and the economy in the midst of a worldwide recession.
Comments can become very contentious, invoking prior ideological positions but with little reference to the people most affected by such disparities the general public. Writing in the journal Psychological Science, Krishna Savani of Columbia Business School and Aneeta Rattan of Stanford University investigate the underlying factors that explain Americans' contradictory opinions on wealth. They surmised that one factor the concept of choice might be particularly influential in discussions about wealth.
"Choice is a pervasive and highly valued concept in the U.S.," say the authors. If we assume that people make free choices, they theorized, while at the same time we acknowledge that some people are rich and others are poor, we may be more likely to believe that inequality in life outcomes is justified and reasonable because it must be the result of individual choice.
In a series of six experiments, they put their theory about the effects of a choice mindset to the test.
The results of the experiment confirmed the researchers' hypothesis. After controlling for certain characteristics like political orientation, socioeconomic status, and gender, Savani and Rattan found that participants in the choice condition were less disturbed about wealth inequalities in the U.S. than participants in the control condition.
The findings were supported in a second experiment when researchers used a priming technique to incidentally highlight the concept of choice.
Evidence from the first three experiments convinced Savani and Rattan that choice is indeed an important factor underlying Americans' attitudes toward wealth inequality. "When people think in terms of choice, they become focused on the idea that people gain wealth through their own choices and not because of social protections. This additional emphasis on individual agency leads them to be less disturbed the wealth inequalities that exist," the authors explain.
With these results in hand, they decided to look at how a choice-oriented mindset affects attitudes toward specific policies.
In line with their hypotheses, participants in the choice condition were less supportive of redistributive policies than participants in the control condition. The relationship was explained by participants' beliefs about individuals' entitlement to keep their wealth.
In July 2011, Savani and Rattan were in the midst of conducting their research when current events intervened. The federal government was faced with a decision: raise the debt ceiling or default on the national debt. The researchers decided to seize the moment: "We wanted to see if the concept of choice could shift people's attitudes even with the nation's economic future hanging in the balance."
In the week prior to the resolution of the debt crisis, they surveyed participants, asking them how supportive they would be of different policies that might help to resolve the federal debt crisis, all of which involved increasing taxes on the wealthy.
Overall, Savani and Rattan believe their research offers critical insights into how people think about wealth inequality. "When the U.S. faces hard economic challenges, people often talk about needing to make difficult choices. But our findings suggest that when Americans are prompted to think about making choices, they might act in ways that are inconsistent with their own attitudes."
Given how important the issue of wealth inequality is in American society, Savani and Rattan hope to continue research in this area. "Issues of income inequality affect so many aspects of people's lives how happy they are, what they strive for, what opportunities their kids have and also influence governmental decisions what public services to provide, how to tax individuals, and how to allocate benefits," they say.
"Investigating additional factors that influence people's attitudes toward income and wealth inequality will be a fascinating and important question for future research to explore."
CitationA Choice Mind-Set Increases the Acceptance and Maintenance of Wealth Inequality. Krishna Savani and Aneeta Rattan. Psychological Science 2012. doi:10.1177/0956797611434540
Wealth inequality has significant psychological, physiological, societal, and economic costs. In six experiments, we investigated how seemingly innocuous, culturally pervasive ideas can help maintain and further wealth inequality. Specifically, we tested whether the concept of choice, which is deeply valued in American society, leads Americans to act in ways that perpetuate wealth inequality. Thinking in terms of choice, we argue, activates the belief that life outcomes stem from personal agency, not societal factors, and thereby leads people to justify wealth inequality. The results showed that highlighting the concept of choice makes people less disturbed by facts about existing wealth inequality in the United States, more likely to underestimate the role of societal factors in individuals’ successes, less likely to support the redistribution of educational resources, and less likely to support raising taxes on the rich—even if doing so would help resolve a budget deficit crisis. These findings indicate that the culturally valued concept of choice contributes to the maintenance of wealth inequality.
Keywords: policymaking, decision making, choice, wealth inequality, redistribution, taxation.
|Last Updated on Sunday, 01 July 2012 22:43|