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Income Inequality Influences Perceptions of Legitimate Income Differences

  • Kris-Stella Trump

This article argues that public opinion regarding the legitimacy of income differences is influenced by actual income inequality. When income differences are perceived to be high, the public thinks of larger income inequality as legitimate. The phenomenon is explained by the system justification motivation and other psychological processes that favor existing social arrangements. Three experiments show that personal experiences of inequality as well as information regarding national-level income inequality can affect which income differences are thought of as legitimate. A fourth experiment shows that the system justification motivation is a cause of this effect. These results can provide an empirical basis for future studies to assume that the public reacts to inequality with adapted expectations, not increased demands for redistribution.

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Research Specialist at the Center for Healthcare Delivery Sciences, Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School (e-mail: The author gratefully acknowledges useful feedback provided by Stephen Ansolabehere, Christian Bjørnskov, John Bullock, Jennifer Hochschild, Cindy Kam, Steve Levitsky, Jim Sidanius, members of the Sidanius Lab in Intergroup Relations, seminar participants at the American Politics Research Workshop at Harvard University, the anonymous reviewers and the Editor, Robert Johns. Most importantly, thanks are offered to Ryan Enos for invaluable support throughout the research process. Thanks are also due to Nazar Akrami and Robin Bergh for their generous help in carrying out the experiment in Sweden, and to Ben Brondsky, Beverly Duperly-Boos, Elizabeth Horton, Ian Lundberg, and Ola Topczewska, who provided research assistance. Research funding was provided by the Tobin Project and the Mind/Brain/Behavior Interfaculty Initiative at Harvard University. Earlier versions of this article were presented at the Midwest Political Science Association Annual Meeting in Chicago in 2013, at the NYU-CESS Experiments Conference in New York in 2013, and at the American Economic Association Annual Meeting in Boston, Mass., in 2015. Data replication sets are available at and online appendices are available at 10.1017/S0007123416000326.

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