You Choose, They Lose: The Psychology of Income Inequality

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