Inequality Aversion Is For Real

A number of studies have found support for the idea that children as young as 4 or 5 dislike inequality. However, the studies generally don’t do a good job isolating the desire to curb inequality from concerns about social welfare or social comparisons. For example, if Billy is unhappy that Steve receives more candy than Scott, it might be because Billy fears for Scott’s welfare, not because Billy dislikes inequality. Similarly, Scott may be unhappy Steve receives more candy because it makes Scott look bad by comparison, not because Scott is opposed to inequality.

Yale psychologists Alex Shaw and Kristina Olson set out to design an experiment that would overcome these shortcomings. They asked children ages 6-8 to allocate five erasers to two other children in order to reward them for a job. If the children in the study chose to award the erasers equally, it could not be because of social welfare concerns because that would require throwing the 5th eraser away. In addition, because the children were dealing with third parties, social comparisons would not come into play. Therefore, if children still preferred equal outcomes, it could only be because of inequality aversion. In fact, that’s exactly what Shaw and Olson found.

Participants would rather throw away their own resource than see it distributed unequally (17 out of 20, p = .003; see Figure 2). That is, even when the resource could potentially go to the participant and the other child is absent, children were in favor of throwing away the resource to avoid inequity. Additionally, they were willing to sacrifice a resource that they knew would be wasted by being thrown in the trash. This is the first demonstration of children taking a cost to themselves in order to reduce inequity that cannot be explained by social welfare preferences or wanting to avoid upsetting another present child.

Interestingly, in a separate experiment the researchers found that when the amount of work done was not equal, children were willing to accept unequal outcomes.

We used the same method as in the inequity condition of Study 1 but inserted a sentence revealing that one of the children had done more work than the other child—we called this the hard worker condition…A binomial test on the hard worker condition revealed that children preferred to give the additional resource to the recipient who had done more work rather than throw away the resource (18 out of 20, p = .0002).

There are two defenses of inequality most commonly used in public discourse, and the research of Shaw an Olson reveals how we are geared to respond to them differently. First, there is a wonky economic argument that inequality doesn’t matter because it’s simply the outcome of the free market. This runs counter to the innate inequality aversion apparent in most research.

There is also the argument that inequality is a result of differing levels of work and effort. That is, inequality occurs because CEOs are busting their butts 80 hours a week while low income people are lazily laying around collecting checks from the government. This argument fits with the research on the subject — even inequality-averse children are willing to give hard workers more resources.

The implication is that those who want to fight inequality would be best served by highlighting the fact that many low-income people work hard while many wealthy people don’t. Creating space in the public consciousness for Wendy’s employees who work 60-hour weeks or investors who earn millions as they sit on the beach would mitigate a key reason we accept inequality. All that would be left is our innate desire to oppose inequality.
Shaw, A., & Olson, K. (2012). Children discard a resource to avoid inequity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141 (2), 382-395 DOI: 10.1037/a0025907

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