Denise Cummins Ph.D.

Good Thinking

The Claim: People Don't Want Economic Equality

A Yale psychologist argues that fairness matters more to us than equality.

Posted Dec 24, 2015

ID 54404408 © Věra Kontríková |
Source: ID 54404408 © Věra Kontríková |

In a recent Atlantic essay, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom claims there is not a smidgen of evidence that humans (or any other species) naturally value equality for its own sake. Nor should we, he argues, because it is not equality that we crave but fairness.

Yes, We Do Want Equality

While insightful, this claim is also misleading. We very much want and demand equality when it comes to rights, protection, and opportunities under the law. We want our laws to reflect the fact that murder is murder regardless of who the victim is—young, old, rich, poor, sinner, or saint. Indeed, this is the message of the Black Lives Matter movement.

We also demand equality when it comes to being treated with dignity and respect. Nothing elicits rage like feeling that we are being treated as though we don't count and we don't matter. This is an issue with which Bloom should be well acquainted because colleges are facing increasingly voluble protests from their undergraduates over what they perceived to be demeaning "micro-aggressions". College populations today are more diverse than they were in the past. Elite colleges now have students who have faced more injustice in their 18 years than most college professors have in their entire lives. As Yale Dean Jonathan Holloway describes it:

"The students, for them it’s not about free speech. They aren’t questioning the rights of free speech. You’re hearing this incredible pain and frustration related to the issue of being constantly marginalized, feeling that their speech and their existence simply doesn’t matter. They get that message from all kinds of different stimuli in their life, whether it’s the pop-culture world, whether it’s the stuff they’re learning in classes, or peers who don’t value them and their contributions, or peers who simply think they don’t deserve to be at this place."

These students don't just want to be treated fairly by their peers. They want to be treated as equals. So, yes, we often do expect and demand equality.

Yes, We Are Willing to Tolerate Economic Inequality—Within Limits.

But what Bloom is most concerned about in his essay is the conundrum of our response to a particular type of inequality, namely, economic inequality. It is here that Bloom argues we don't actually want equality. As proof, he cites research conducted by Dan Ariely, Duke University Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics and author of Predictably Irrational. Ariely found that when people are  asked to create a perfect society, they choose a society in which those in the top fifth have about three times more wealth than those in the bottom fifth. The results seem to indicate that people are willing to tolerate (or even to prefer) economic inequality, within limits.

Why Do We Tolerate Economic Inequality?

So why do we tolerate economic inequality when inequality in other spheres makes us so angry. One answer to this question, Bloom suggests, can be found in philosopher Harry Frankfurt's recent book, On Inequality. Frankfurt claims that economic equality has no intrinsic value. A simple thought experiment purportedly makes this clear: Imagine a world in which everyone is equally poor. Few, Frankfurt believes, would prefer that world to the one we live in now.

Frankfurt argues instead that what people object to is unjust causes of economic inequality—economic inequality that results not from merit but from factors outside your control, such as your parents' social class, your skin color, or your sex. He also points out that people worry about the consequences of economic inequality (the erosion of democracy and increase in crime), and the suffering of those desperately impoverished. We are concerned, he says, not because some have less, but rather because “those with less have too little.” This perfect sound bite succinctly captures the motivation behind recent movements to raise the minimum wage. Americans believe that working a forty-hour workweek should yield an income above the poverty line, not one that still requires them to avail themselves of government assistance simply to survive.

What Counts as Fairness?

If Frankfurt and Bloom are correct, then, it isn't inequality that bothers us but unfairness. But Bloom goes one step further in arguing that what people consider fair often isn't. When it comes to fairness, humans and non-human animals show "particularly strong motivation not to get less than anyone else." In other words, two for you and one for me is unfair. But two for me and one for you is OK.

Bloom cites a few studies that investigate fairness in the interactions and behavior of children, non-human animals, and individuals living in small-scale societies. He concludes that their results seem to support this rather self-interested version of fairness. But that conclusion is too simplistic: A closer look at these rather large research literatures tells a different story: Fairness is a complex concept that depends on many social factors.

For example, in a recent study, dogs decided whether to pull a tray containing a treat toward another dog. The donor dog did not get the treat, only the recipient dog did. The researchers found that donor dogs willingly pulled the tray toward a familiar dog, but often declined to pull the tray when an unfamiliar dog would benefit.

How to explain this? If they were acting out of pure altruism, they would have pulled the tray to the familiar and unfamiliar dogs alike. If they were motivated solely by selfishness, they would not have pulled the tray for anyone but themselves.

Instead, their behavior is most consistent with the notion of reciprocal altruism—I'll help you if you help me later. The dogs imposed a cost on themselves (pulling the tray) to benefit another dog, but only if the dog was familiar to them, suggesting, perhaps, an expectation of future exchange of benefits from dogs they assumed they would see again.

Similar results have been found with humans. We are more generous toward kin, friends, and people we consider members of our groups, in large part because we know we will engaging in future transactions with these folks. But where things really get interesting is when differences in perceived status enter the picture.

When Higher Status Makes People Behave Fairly or Generously

Perceived relative status greatly impacts our evaluation of fairness, and the nature of this impact depends greatly on how relative status is interpreted. When status differences are believed to result from arbitrary processes (e.g., luck of the draw), people behave reasonably fairly in studies of economic transactions. For example, in studies where one person is given complete control over how to share a sum of money, the "Dictator" usually gives about 30% of the sum to the other party. When the other party is given the opportunity to refuse the offer (meaning no one gets any money), the amount offered is usually about 50%. In repeated games where people have the opportunity to cheat, people will actually pay a premium to punish someone who treated them unfairly.

In contrast, when people believe status is gained by conferring benefits on others, high ranking individuals behave generously toward lower ranking individuals: They offer more, expect less, and exhibit greater tolerance toward cheating. This pattern is referred to as noblesse oblige.

For example, my colleagues and I investigated noblesse oblige in a seven-country, cross-cultural study that involved asking people how willing they were to continue a simple carpool arrangement when the party who was supposed to pay for the gas honored the agreement 100%, 75%, 50%, or 25% of the time. The catch was that the parties were asked to adopt the perspective of an employer driving an employee or vice versa. We found that compared to participants who adopted an employee perspective, those who adopted a boss perspective were far more willing to continue the arrangement despite significant non-compliance on the part of their employee car pool partner, were more likely to feel they had been treated fairly even when the employee didn't keep up their end of the bargain all the time, felt less animosity towards their cheating partners, and believed they got the better deal because they felt they bore less cost and received higher value from the arrangement. The countries involved were Australia, Singapore, Canada, Japan, England, Germany, and the USA.

You might think that this noblesse oblige could be attributed to the assumption that the boss made more than the employee. But we found the same pattern even when the employee was described as making more than the boss due to sales bonuses.

How to Bring Out Greed in People

But here is where the rubber really hits the road: When money is tied to status and prestige, the nasty side of human nature tends to show its face. In studies where people were led to believe status rankings reflected outcomes in competitive performance, those on top behaved exploitatively toward lower ranking individuals. They offered people lower down the food chain less and demanded more when given the opportunity to refuse the proposed split. Even more disturbing, lower ranking individuals were willing to accept less and offer more to higher-ranking individuals. In other words, both sides believe winners are superior and therefore deserve more. Keep in mind is that the "competitions" involved in these studies were things as simple as trivia tests.

This status-conscious mind seems to be a very old one that we have in common with other species whose social organizations are hierarchical in nature. In a recent study, Brosnan and de Waal found that dominant chimps were angrier when they were on the receiving end of a lesser reward than those lower in the pecking order.

When Equality is Considered Unfair

When people come to believe they deserve more than others, they end up experiencing equality as a great injustice, like this person who commented on Bloom's Atlantic essay:

"My wife, a resident physician, got pretty annoyed at the whole $15/hr thing because, when you break out her resident salary into hourly pay, she makes about $13/hr...Granted, she'll make about $60/hr when she's done with residency....Should a fast food worker with no appreciable skill set make about half as much as the average first year lawyer?"

To paraphrase Gore Vidal, to these people, it is not enough to be rich. Others must be impoverished. They don't become doctors or lawyers because they want to practice medicine or law. They become doctors or lawyers because those are high-paying, prestigious professions, and they are seeking prestige, status, and wealth. They want to feel that they are entitled to more than the majority of others, and will quite volubly protest if they feel the gap between their wages and those lower down the food chain is beginning to erode--even if that "erosion" takes the form of lifting hard-working people out of the depths of poverty.

So do we really want fairness, not equality? An abundance of research seems to show that a better question is when are we willing to tolerate inequality (and to what degree) before our outrage over perceived unfairness reaches the boiling point?

Copyright Dr. Denise Cummins December 24, 2015

Dr. Cummins is a research psychologist, a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think.

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