Getting Fired Changes the Way You Look at Your Rich Friends

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After losing a job, people are less likely to think the wealthy deserve what they’ve got.

By Nathan Collins


Unemployed men outside a soup kitchen in Depression-era Chicago. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Getting fired is the worst. It’s a blow to your self-esteem and well-being, and then you have to go out and find a new job (or become a freelance science writer). Turns out, getting axed has moral consequences as well: Losing a job, a new study finds, actually makes people less likely to believe that others deserve the money they’ve earned.

It probably doesn’t come as a great surprise that people who’ve suddenly lost their income might doubt that those who still have well-paying jobs deserve their money. Nor is it a surprise that people who are unemployed do, in fact, support more redistributive economic policies. After all, they have economic reasons to do so — the jobless are without a steady stream of money needed for food, housing, and other basic needs. It makes sense they’d like someone to give them a hand, or at least some cash to get through the week.

But, Abigail Barra, Luis Miller, and Paloma Ubeda argue today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it’s not just a matter of economic self-interest. In fact, losing a job changes the way you think about what others have earned. “Using behavioral experiments and an unusual subject engagement strategy, we present evidence that becoming unemployed erodes the extent to which a person acknowledges earned entitlement, i.e., acknowledges an individual’s right to that gained through his or her own effort or endeavor,” the team writes.

“Becoming unemployed erodes the extent to which a person acknowledges earned entitlement.”

That “unusual subject engagement strategy”? The researchers first recruited 151 people — either students or working adults — in Bilbao and Cordova, Spain, where unemployment rates are 15 and 30 percent, respectively. At the start of the experiment, teams of four helped sort pieces of blue and yellow gravel for seven minutes in exchange for a number of tokens, after which the researchers gave each person an amount of money for use in the second stage of the experiment. In random-pay teams, those allocations were left to chance; in earned-pay teams, they were based on how much gravel participants had sorted.

Next, participants played a “distributive justice” game, in which each person could re-allocate money to their teammates in whatever way they chose — essentially, a choice that reflected what they thought the other players deserved. For example, they could shift things around so that everyone received the same amount of money, or they could leave everyone’s pay alone. At the end of the experiment, the researchers chose one player at random and used his or her choices to determine how much money each player would take home. The players repeated the experiment a year later, after some of them lost their jobs (or failed to find jobs).

As the researchers expected, losing a job made people more egalitarian. In the first year, players in the earned-pay condition allocated more pay to those who’d sorted more gravel, while those in the random-pay condition gave the same amount to everyone. For those who kept their jobs or stayed in school, that didn’t change in the second year.

But it did change for those who’d lost their jobs or failed to find their first ones. In the first year, they behaved just like those who’d kept their jobs. In the second year, unemployed players spread money equally among their team members, whether they were on an earned- or random-pay team. That, the researchers argue, suggests unemployed players no longer cared about how hard others worked for their money.

That result likely reflects a kind of psychological self-preservation, the researchers write. If one believes in “earned entitlement,” losing a job can make one feel worthless. Letting go of that belief could, therefore, make someone feel better about unemployment, and about getting help to make ends meet.