European Commission logo
español español
CORDIS - Resultados de investigaciones de la UE

The psychology of inequality: Understanding the social, cognitive and motivational foundations of people's attitudes towards the distribution of power and resources in society.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - PINQ (The psychology of inequality: Understanding the social, cognitive and motivational foundations of people's attitudes towards the distribution of power and resources in society.)

Período documentado: 2017-02-01 hasta 2019-01-31

The current project aimed to address the problem of growing social inequality across the world. I approached this problem from the perspective that people’s attitudes about the distribution of resources in society plays a central role how societies address inequality. In democratic societies, public opinion matters – it affects whether people provide their elected representatives the mandate required to pursue policies that will reduce inequality. This is important because high levels of social inequality are associated with various negative outcomes at both the individual and societal level.

Research shows that that people (a) generally prefer more equal societies, yet (b) oppose many of the redistributive measures aimed at reducing inequality. In other words, there is a principle-implementation gap in people's attitudes towards inequality. Psychological research offers insights that could help close the principle-implementation gap – showing that there are various social constraints, cognitive biases, and psychological motives that prevent people from supporting policies that align with their stated principles. Applying these insights to current work on inequality from sociology, political science and economics, I aimed to examine three aspects of the psychology of inequality: i.e. the (a) social, (b) cognitive and (c) motivational roots of people’s attitudes towards inequality.

This multidisciplinary endeavour was designed to lay the foundation for research that could ultimately provide insights to policy makers, advocates and educators about how to
communicate the problem of inequality to the general public in a way that maximizes awareness and engagement.

This project yielded several new findings. On the first theme – the social roots of inequality attitudes – studies conducted during this project showed that one contributing factor to the principle-implementation gap in attitudes towards inequality is the ideological alignment that occurs when members of high-status groups engage in contact with each other, and avoid contact with disadvantaged groups.

On the second theme – the cognitive roots of inequality attitudes – research from this project revealed that another contributing factor to the principle-implementation gap is a biased perception of the true nature of resource distribution in society among the beneficiaries of inequality.

On the third theme – the motivational roots of attitudes inequality attitudes – research from this project revealed that a third set of contributing factors to the principle-implementation gap are people’s inherent psychological motives to (a) maintain the status quo (b) reduce threats to social cohesion and (c) reduce competition from other groups.
Theme 1:

Study 1: Contact that the beneficiaries of inequality have with the victims of inequality predicts support, over time, for symbolic policies to reduce inequality but not resource-specific policies to reduce inequality. Results presented at EASP conference, Granada, 2017.

Study 2: Contact that the beneficiaries of inequality have with the victims of inequality predicts greater support, over time, for collective action to reduce inequality (e.g. protest). Contact with other beneficiaries of inequality predicts less support for collective action over time. Currently under “revise and resubmit” at a high-impact social psychology journal. Presented at seminar in Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford.

Theme 2:

Study 3: Beneficiaries of inequality over-estimate the societal disadvantages they face, leading them to support an authoritarian ideology to buffer their wellbeing. Published in high-impact multidisciplinary journal, Political Psychology, and covered in popular magazine Pacific Standard (in an article by Tom Jacobs, 2019).

Study 4: Beneficiaries of inequality under-estimate their societal advantages and oppose policies designed to reduce inequality. Published in high-impact multidisciplinary journal, Journal of Happiness Studies.

Theme 3:

Study 5: People who are able to fulfil their motive to protect the status quo, by framing inequality as resulting from fair processes, are less affected by living in unequal neighbourhoods. Published in the British Journal of Social Psychology.

Study 6: The motive for social cohesion predicted opposition, over time, to inequality-reducing policies among both the beneficiaries and victims of inequality, but the motive for dominance only predicted opposition only among the beneficiaries of inequality. Accepted for presentation at ISPP conference, Lisbon, 2019.

Study 7: Hostile sexism predicted greater tolerance of stranger-violence and outsider violence, whereas benevolent sexism only predicted greater tolerance of spousal violence, and simultaneously, lower tolerance of stranger-violence. Under review at high-impact generalist psychology journal. Presented at seminar in School of Psychology, University of Kent, 2019.
Progress beyond state of the art:

The current project includes many features that make take its findings beyond the state of the art. First, it involves the use of nationally representative panel studies around the world. The biggest challenge for research on the principle-implementation gap in inequality attitudes has been a scarcity of largescale survey data. The current project fills this gap and generates new insights on public opinion regarding inequality.

Second, the use of large-scale survey data is further enhanced by the application of advanced statistical techniques that are rarely applied to the psychological literature on inequality. These include structural equation modeling, multilevel modeling and random intercept cross-lagged modelling.

A third novel feature is the diversity of social contexts and dimensions of inequality that have been included – studies spanning nine countries across the world and covering a wide range of socially-important dimensions of inequality in modern societies – e.g. ethnicity, gender, income, sexual orientation, caste and religion. This provides cross-national and cross-cultural validation the psychological processes being investigated. Psychological research has also been criticized for its focus on the WEIRD (western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic) world. By including data from non-WEIRD countries such as Malaysia, India and South Africa, the current project has contributed significantly to the diversity of psychological research on inequality.

Implications for policy makers and for society:

Facilitate the integration of communities to promote greater friendly contact between groups of differing social status. This will increase awareness of the effects and scale of inequality and increase support for measures designed to reduce inequality.

Targeted education efforts for members of high-status groups, to counteract the cognitive biases that drive opposition to inequality-reduction efforts, especially (a) over-estimation of societal disadvantages, and (b) under-estimation of societal advantages.

Designers of public engagement initiatives must account for people’s motives to (a) maintain the status quo (b) to reduce threat and (c) enhance their own group’s competitiveness. These motives might mitigate the effectiveness of communication efforts designed to change people’s attitudes towards redistributive policies.
Overview of themes, findings and implications