Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Thinking about choice diminishes concern for wealth inequality

Date:
June 25, 2012
Source:
Association for Psychological Science
Summary:
Against the backdrop of a worldwide recession, wealth inequality has become a prominent theme in discussions about politics and the economy. In opinion polls, many Americans seem to support a more equal distribution of wealth. But they often vote against measures that would narrow the gap between those with the highest and lowest incomes. In a new study, psychological scientists examine whether the concept of choice might help to explain Americans' contradictory opinions on wealth.

Against the backdrop of a worldwide recession, wealth inequality has become a prominent theme in discussions about politics and the economy. In some ways, Americans seem to advocate a more equal distribution of wealth. In surveys and public opinion polls, for example, the majority of Americans supports having a strong middle class. But, when it comes to specific policies, they often vote against measures that would narrow the gap between those with the highest and lowest incomes.

In a new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, researchers 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.

In the first experiment, participants were randomly assigned to a control or a choice condition. The participants in the control condition were asked to list five things they did in each of four time periods the previous day; in the choice condition, the participants listed five choices instead. All of the participants then rated how disturbed they were by statistics about existing wealth inequalities in the United States.

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. And these findings were supported in a second experiment, in which the researchers used a priming technique to incidentally highlight the concept of choice.

In a third experiment, the researchers found that when the concept of choice is activated, people under-emphasize the role of societal structures in allowing individuals to create and accumulate wealth.

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 a fourth experiment, they investigated how thinking about choice might influence support for policies that aim to equalize the distribution of resources in the context of education. 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 a fifth experiment, the researchers confirmed that the effects of choice are specific to redistributive policies and not to some more general reluctance to support government spending on public goods.

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. As in the previous studies, participants who were not thinking about choice were relatively supportive of increasing taxes given the stakes at hand. By comparison, the participants who were made to think about choice were significantly less supportive of such policies, even when faced directly with the consequences of maintaining the status quo.

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."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Association for Psychological Science. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. K. Savani, A. Rattan. A Choice Mind-Set Increases the Acceptance and Maintenance of Wealth Inequality. Psychological Science, 2012; DOI: 10.1177/0956797611434540

Cite This Page:

Association for Psychological Science. "Thinking about choice diminishes concern for wealth inequality." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 25 June 2012. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/06/120625125950.htm>.
Association for Psychological Science. (2012, June 25). Thinking about choice diminishes concern for wealth inequality. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 24, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/06/120625125950.htm
Association for Psychological Science. "Thinking about choice diminishes concern for wealth inequality." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/06/120625125950.htm (accessed July 24, 2014).

Share This




More Mind & Brain News

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

New Painkiller Designed To Discourage Abuse: Will It Work?

New Painkiller Designed To Discourage Abuse: Will It Work?

Newsy (July 24, 2014) The FDA approved Targiniq ER on Wednesday, a painkiller designed to keep users from abusing it. Like any new medication, however, it has doubters. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
China's Ageing Millions Look Forward to Bleak Future

China's Ageing Millions Look Forward to Bleak Future

AFP (July 24, 2014) China's elderly population is expanding so quickly that children struggle to look after them, pushing them to do something unexpected in Chinese society- move their parents into a nursing home. Duration: 02:07 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Idaho Boy Helps Brother With Disabilities Complete Triathlon

Idaho Boy Helps Brother With Disabilities Complete Triathlon

Newsy (July 23, 2014) An 8-year-old boy helped his younger brother, who has a rare genetic condition that's confined him to a wheelchair, finish a triathlon. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Huge Schizophrenia Study Finds Dozens Of New Genetic Causes

Huge Schizophrenia Study Finds Dozens Of New Genetic Causes

Newsy (July 22, 2014) The 83 new genetic markers could open dozens of new avenues for schizophrenia treatment research. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

    Health News

      Environment News

        Technology News



          Save/Print:
          Share:

          Free Subscriptions


          Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

          Get Social & Mobile


          Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

          Have Feedback?


          Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
          Mobile: iPhone Android Web
          Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
          Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
          Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins