Imagine one of the richest people in America – say, Warren Buffet, Sergey Brin or Larry Ellison – and you are more likely to see his enormous wealth as deserved and deserved, the product of hard work, talent. and ingenuity.
But if you consider “the super-rich”, “the 1%” or “the economic elite”, rather than individuals, you are more likely to attribute great wealth to the systemic benefits that have contributed to decades of economic development. income inequality in the United States. , and to feel more confused by it.
This finding, reported in new psychology research by collaborators at Cornell and Ohio State University, suggests that our tolerance for inequality – and our support for redistributive policies aimed at reducing it – may depend on person that people are made to think about at the peak of economic times. ladder.
“When you think of the ‘rich’ or ‘1%’, the mind turns much more easily to situational attributions,” said Thomas Gilovich, Irene Blecker Rosenfeld professor of psychology at the College of Arts and Sciences. “You think of the rigged system, the privileges they have, so you’re much more willing to support, say, an inheritance tax to deal with growing income inequality. “
Gilovich is co-authored with Jesse Walker, MA ’17, Ph.D. ’19, assistant professor of marketing at Fisher College of Business at Ohio State, and Stephanie Tepper, MA ’21, doctoral student in psychology , from “People are more tolerant of inequalities when expressed in terms of individuals rather than Groups at the Top,” published Oct. 18 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
In eight studies involving a total of 2,800 survey participants, researchers found that people were more willing to accept extreme disparities in wealth or resources, and less supportive of policies such as the wealth tax. or estates, in the context of successful individuals. They found the same level of inequality less fair when it applied to groups.
Researchers suggest that this effect is guided by our tendency to view internal traits as more responsible for individual successes and failures than for group outcomes. Also at work: “the striped star effect”, in which Gilovich and Walker found that people are more inspired by individual success than by team success.
The first study of the new research questioned appropriate CEO compensation, noting that CEO salaries at the country’s 350 largest companies have risen from 42 times to 372 times that of the average worker since 1995.
Everyone interviewed thought the current ratio was too high. But those who were randomly chosen to consider the CEO of a specific company believed that the CEO should earn a significantly higher multiple of a worker’s average salary than those who consider the CEO class as a whole.
“We seem to be a little more tolerant of lavish pay when it comes to an individual CEO who gets paid,” Walker said, “rather than CEOs as a group.”
Another study featured the covers of Forbes magazine featuring either a group of seven billionaires from the Forbes 400 list – edited to remove well-known figures including Bill Gates, Jon Bon Jovi and Oprah Winfrey – or a single member of the group.
Again, study participants believed that an individual’s level of wealth was fairer and more deserved, and attributed their success more to talent and hard work. Those who saw the group cover were “clearly more troubled” by the wealth of billionaires, the researchers wrote, attributing it more to an economic system working for their benefit.
“These are individuals that very few of our subjects, if any, would know,” Gilovich said. “Nevertheless, they are less favorable to the taxation of these people than to the perception of these people.”
This higher tolerance for individual wealth changed in a study that encouraged subjects to think about external factors such as privilege and relationships – in this case, a “Bollywood” actor born into a prominent family in the industry. .
“When we do that, the effect wears off,” Gilovich said. “People are just as willing to tax a rich person when they have been made to make situational allotments for the success of the individual.”
The results suggest that a common practice in writing and journalism – leading with a personalized story to illustrate a larger issue or trend – can backfire on income inequality, at least when it comes to describe those at the top, the researchers said. Government officials, nonprofits, journalists and others seeking to make people care about the issue, they said, should draw attention to the wealthy as a class, and not on wealthy individuals.
“If you want to change the system,” Gilovich said, “you have to get people to think systemically.”