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The science of inequality: why people prefer unequal societies

In a thought-provoking new paper, three Yale scientists - Christina Starmans, Mark Sheskin and Paul Bloom - argue that it’s not inequality in life that really bothers us, but unfairness.

'Anyone looking for evidence that people have a natural aversion to inequality will find numerous laboratory studies that seemingly confirm their view. Studies have found “a universal desire for more equal pay”, “egalitarian motives in humans”, “egalitarianism in young children”, and that “equality trumps reciprocity”. A Google Scholar search for “inequality aversion” yields over 10,000 papers that bear on this topic.

'When subjects in laboratory studies are asked to divide resources among unrelated individuals, they tend to divide them equally. If a previous situation has led to a pre-existing inequality, people will divide future resources unequally in order to correct or minimise the inequality between others. This bias is so powerful that subjects sometimes prefer equal outcomes in which everyone gets less overall to unequal outcomes where everyone gets more overall.

'Furthermore, people appear to view the equal distribution of resources as a moral good; they express anger toward those who benefit from unequal distributions. This outrage is sufficiently strong that subjects will pay to punish unequal distributors.

'... Given these findings, one might expect that when people are asked to distribute resources across a real-world group of people, they would choose an equal distribution of resources across all segments of society. But they do not.

'A recent study by Norton and Ariely received well-deserved media attention as it showed that people both underestimate the amount of inequality in our society, and prefer a more egalitarian society to the one they think they live in.'


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