Saturday, January 19, 2013

SPSP 2013: How Much Inequality Is Too Much?

“Of all the babies that die every year, what percent should be from the richest 20% and what percent should be from the poorest 20%?” – Mike Norton

In the Saturday morning session, some of my favorite social psychologists/researchers presented their ongoing work on lay beliefs about inequality in the United States. It is encouraging to see the new generation of psychology scholars taking on important issues related to social justice and inequality!

The first talk was presented by Mike Norton of the Harvard Business School. Norton, in prior research, has shown that people are remarkably inaccurate about the amount of wealth inequality in the United States—all types of people, liberals, conservatives, rich, or poor people tend to underestimate inequality in America. In this talk, Norton described new research examining beliefs about health inequality. Specifically, if life expectancy has increased by 3.2 years in the last 20 years, who has seen the largest share of this increase? The findings aligned with the previous work on wealth inequality beliefs—people underestimate the extent that poorer people have reduced (rather than increased) life expectancy over the last 20 years.

In the second talk, Krishna Savani of Singapore National University described research suggesting that thinking about choice increases support for wealth inequality. In Savani’s words, “When choice is salient, Americans will think that the rich are rich because of good choices they have made and the poor are poor because of the bad choices they have made.” Across several studies, Savani finds that getting people to think about choice—e.g., priming how many choices they made throughout the day, relative to thinking about the things they did—leads people to be less concerned about inequality in society and less likely to support redistribution.

In the third talk in this symposium, Aneeta Rattan of Stanford University examined inequalities in education. Specifically, Rattan asked “How can people construe education as more of a right and less of a resource?” In her talk, Rattan discussed how beliefs about the universal intellectual potential of individuals—that under the right circumstances, all people can excel in education—systematically leads to increases in support for attitudes suggesting that education is a right and not a resource. In one example, getting people to agree with statements suggesting that intellectual potential was universal v. not, led people to be more supportive of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing rights to education for all Americans. Importantly, these effects occurred independently of the political orientation of participants.

Taken together, the research in this symposium shed light on issues of wealth distribution in the United States, and offered some very intriguing possibilities changing attitudes about inequality in society. 

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