A Problem How Inequality Is Defined

A Problem How Inequality Is Defined.

There is immense concern about economic inequality, both among the scholarly community and in the general public, and many insist that equality is an important social goal. However, when people are asked about the ideal distribution of wealth in their country, they actually prefer unequal societies. The researchers suggest that these two phenomena can be reconciled by noticing that despite appearances to the contrary, there is no evidence that people are bothered by economic inequality itself. Rather, they are bothered by something that is often confounded with inequality: economic unfairness. Drawing upon laboratory studies, cross-cultural research, and experiments with babies and young children, the researchers argue that humans naturally favour fair distributions, not equal ones, and that when fairness and equality clash, people prefer fair inequality over unfair equality. Both psychological research and decisions by policymakers would benefit from more clearly distinguishing inequality from unfairness. Nevertheless, inequality in a society also predicts a greater degree of violence, obesity, teenage pregnancy, and interpersonal distrust. Areas of the United States with high income inequality also tend to have higher divorce and bankruptcy rates than areas with more egalitarian income distributions and they suffer from higher homicide rates. Similar negative effects show up in laboratory studies with simulated public goods games in which the extent of inequality is set by the researchers—when the inequities are made salient, there is less cooperation and inter-connectedness. Credit: Why People Prefer Unequal Societies by Christina Starmans, Mark Sheskin and Paul Bloom.

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