Skip to main content Accessibility help
×
×
Home

Income Inequality Influences Perceptions of Legitimate Income Differences

  • Kris-Stella Trump
Abstract

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.

Copyright
Footnotes
Hide All
*

Research Specialist at the Center for Healthcare Delivery Sciences, Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School (e-mail: kstrump@gmail.com). 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 https://dataverse.harvard.edu/dataverse/BJPolS and online appendices are available at http://dx.doi.org/doi: 10.1017/S0007123416000326.

Footnotes
References
Hide All
Alesina, Alberto F., and Angeletos, George-Marios. 2002. Fairness and Redistribution: US versus Europe. SSRN Electronic Journal. Available from http://www.ssrn.com/abstract=346545, accessed 1 July 2011.
Alesina, Alberto F., and Giuliano, Paola. 2009. Preferences for Redistribution, NBER Working Paper. Available from http://www.nber.org/papers/w14825, accessed 7 June 2010.
Alesina, Alberto F., and Glaeser, Edward. 2004. Fighting Poverty in the U.S. and Europe: A World of Difference. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Almås, Ingvild, Cappelen, Alexander W., Sørensen, Erik Ø., and Tungodden, Bertil. 2010. Fairness and the Development of Inequality Acceptance. Science 328:11761178.
Amable, Bruno. 2009. The Differentiation of Social Demands in Europe: The Social Basis of the European Models of Capitalism. Social Indicators Research 91:391426.
Atkinson, Anthony B. 2003. Income Inequality in OECD Countries: Data and Explanations. Economic Studies 49:479514.
Atkinson, Anthony B., Piketty, Thomas, and Saez, Emmanuel. 2011. Top Incomes in the Long Run of History. Journal of Economic Literature 49:371.
Austen, Siobhan. 2002. An International Comparison of Attitudes to Inequality. International Journal of Social Economics 29:218237.
Barber, Benjamin S. IV, and English, William. 2012. Divide Our Dollars, Not Divide The Dollar: Redistribution, Fairness, and the Ultimatum Game. Working Paper, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
Bartels, Larry M. 2008. Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Benabou, Roland, and Tirole, Jean. 2006. Belief in a Just World and Redistributive Politics. Quarterly Journal of Economics 121:699746.
Berinsky, Adam J., Huber, Gregory A., and Lenz, Gabriel S.. 2012. Evaluating Online Labor Markets for Experimental Research: Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk. Political Analysis 20:351368.
Buhrmester, Michael, Kwang, Tracy, and Gosling, Samuel D.. 2011. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk: A New Source of Inexpensive, Yet High-Quality, Data? Perspectives on Psychological Science 6:35.
Castillo, Juan Carlos. 2012. Is Inequality Becoming Just? Changes in Public Opinion about Economic Distribution in Chile. Bulletin of Latin American Research 31:118.
Cavaillé, Charlotte, and Trump, Kris-Stella. 2015. The Two Facets of Social Policy Preferences. Journal of Politics 77:146160.
Chandler, Jesse, Mueller, Pam, and Paolacci, Gabriele. 2014. Nonnaïveté among Amazon Mechanical Turk Workers: Consequences and Solutions for Behavioral Researchers. Behavior Research Methods 46:112130.
Costa-Lopes, Rui, Dovidio, John F., Pereira, Cícero Roberto, and Jost, John T.. 2013. Social Psychological Perspectives on the Legitimation of Social Inequality: Past, Present and Future. European Journal of Social Psychology 237:229237.
Cruces, Guillermo, Truglia, Ricardo Perez, and Tetaz, Martin. 2013. Biased Perceptions of Income Distribution and Preferences for Redistribution: Evidence from a Survey Experiment. Journal of Public Economics 98:100112.
Dahl, Robert A. 1971. Polyarchy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.
Donnelly, Michael. 2012. Identity and Interests in the United Kingdom. Paper Presented at the Fifth Annual NYU-CESS Conference, New York.
Durante, Ruben, and Putterman, Louis. 2009. Preferences for Redistribution and Perception of Fairness: An Experimental Study. SSRN Working Paper. Available from http://ssrn.com/abstract=1004573, accessed 10 December 2012.
Eidelman, Scott, and Crandall, Christian S.. 2009. A Psychological Advantage for the Status Quo. Pp. 85106 in John T. Jost, Aaron C. Kay and Hulda Thorisdottir, eds. Social and Psychological Bases of Ideology and System Justification . Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Esping-Andersen, Gösta. 1990. The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Frohlich, Norman, Oppenheimer, Joe, and Kurki, Anja. 2004. Modeling Other-Regarding Preferences and an Experimental Test. Public Choice 119:91117.
Gijsberts, Mérove. 2002. The Legitimation of Income Inequality in State-Socialist and Market Societies. Acta Sociologica 45:269285.
Gilens, Martin. 1999. Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hadler, Marcus. 2005. Why Do People Accept Different Income Ratios? A Multi-Level Comparison of Thirty Countries. Acta Sociologica 48:131154.
Hafer, Carolyn L., and Choma, Becky L.. 2009. Belief in a Just World, Perceived Fairness, and Justification of the Status Quo. Pp. 107125 in John T. Jost, Aaron C. Kay and Hulda Thorisdottir, eds. Social and Psychological Bases of Ideology and System Justification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hochschild, Jennifer. 1981. What’s Fair? American Beliefs about Distributive Justice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Imai, Kosuke, King, Gary, and Lau, Olivia. 2015. Zelig: Everyone’s Statistical Software. Available from http://gking.harvard.edu/zelig.
Iversen, Torben, and Soskice, David. 2006. Electoral Institutions and the Politics of Coalitions: Why Some Democracies Redistribute More than Others. American Political Science Review 100:165181.
Jasso, Guillermina. 1999. How Much Injustice Is There in the World? Two New Justice Indexes. American Sociological Review 64:133168.
Jasso, Guillermina. 2000. Trends in the Experience of Injustice: Justice Indexes about Earnings in Six Societies, 1991–1996. Social Justice Research 13:101122.
Jost, John, and Hunyady, Orsolya. 2003. The Psychology of System Justification and the Palliative Function of Ideology. European Review of Social Psychology 13:111153.
Jost, John T., and Banaji, Mahzarin R.. 1994. The Role of Stereotyping in System-Justification and the Production of False Consciousness. British Journal of Social Psychology 33:127.
Jost, John T., Banaji, Mahzarin R., and Nosek, Brian A.. 2004. A Decade of System Justification Theory: Accumulated Evidence of Conscious and Unconscious Bolstering of the Status Quo. Political Psychology 25:881919.
Kahneman, Daniel, and Tversky, Amos. 1979. Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk. Econometrica 47:263291.
Kay, Aaron C., and Friesen, Justin. 2011. On Social Stability and Social Change: Understanding when System Justification Does and Does Not Occur. Current Directions in Psychological Science 20:360364.
Kay, Aaron C., Gaucher, Danielle, Napier, Jamie L., Callan, Mitchell J., and Laurin, Kristin. 2008. God and the Government: Testing a Compensatory Control Mechanism for the Support of External Systems. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 95:1835.
Kay, Aaron C., Gaucher, Danielle, Peach, Jennifer M., Laurin, Kristin, Friesen, Justin, Zanna, Mark P., and Spencer, Steven J.. 2009. Inequality, Discrimination, and the Power of the Status Quo: Direct Evidence for a Motivation to See the Way Things Are as the Way They Should Be. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 97:421434.
Kelley, Jonathan, and Zagorski, Krzysztof. 2004. Economic Change and the Legitimation of Inequality: The Transition from Socialism to the Free Market in Central-East Europe. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility 22:319364.
Kelley, Jonathan, and Evans, M. D. R.. 1993. The Legitimation of Inequality: Occupational Earnings in Nine Nations. American Journal of Sociology 99:75125.
Kelly, Nathan J., and Enns, Peter K.. 2010. Inequality and the Dynamics of Public Opinion: The Self-Reinforcing Link between Economic Inequality and Mass Preferences. American Journal of Political Science 54:855870.
Kenworthy, Lane, and McCall, Leslie. 2008. Inequality, Public Opinion and Redistribution. Socio-Economic Review 6:3568.
Kluegel, James R., and Smith, E. R.. 1986. Beliefs about Inequality: Americans’ Views of What Is and What Ought to Be. New York: Aldine De Gruyter.
Knezevic, Andrea. 2008. StatNews No. 73: Overlapping Confidence Intervals and Statistical Significance. Cornell University Statistical Consulting Unit.
Kuziemko, Ilyana Iliyana, Norton, Michael I., Saez, Emmanuel, and Stantcheva, Stefanie. 2015. How Elastic Are Preferences for Redistribution? Evidence from Randomized Survey Experiments. American Economic Review 105:14781508.
Lane, Robert E. 1959. The Fear of Equality. American Political Science Review 53:3551.
Laurin, Kristin, Gaucher, Danielle, and Kay, Aaron. 2013. Stability and the Justification of Social Inequality. European Journal of Social Psychology 43:246254.
Laurin, Kristin, Shepherd, Steven, and Kay, Aaron C.. 2010. Restricted Emigration, System Inescapability, and Defense of the Status Quo: System-Justifying Consequences of Restricted Exit Opportunities. Psychological Science 21:10751082.
LeBoeuf, Robyn A., and Shafir, Eldar. 2009. Anchoring on the ‘Here’ and ‘Now’ in Time and Distance Judgments. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Learning, Memory, and Cognition 35:8193.
Lipkus, Isaac. 1991. The Construction and Preliminary Validation of a Global Belief in a Just World Scale and the Exploratory Analysis of the Multidimensional Belief in a Just World Scale. Journal of Personality 12:11711178.
Listhaug, Ola, and Aalberg, Toril. 1999. Comparative Public Opinion on Distributive Justice. International Journal of Comparative Sociology 40:117140.
Luttig, Matthew. 2013. The Structure of Inequality and Americans’ Attitudes toward Redistribution. Public Opinion Quarterly 77:811821.
McCall, Leslie. 2013. The Undeserving Rich: Beliefs about Inequality, Opportunity, and Redistribution in American Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Meltzer, Allan H., and Richard, Scott F.. 1981. A Rational Theory of the Size of Government. Journal of Political Economy 89:914927.
Mishel, Lawrence, and Finio, Nicholas. 2013. Earnings of the Top 1.0 Percent Rebound Strongly in the Recovery. Economic Policy Institute Issue Brief No. 347, Washington, D.C.
Mullinix, Kevin J., Leeper, Thomas J., Druckman, James N., and Freese, Jeremy. 2015. The Generalizability of Survey Experiments. Journal of Experimental Political Science 2:109138.
Norton, Michael I., and Ariely, Dan. 2010. Building a Better America – One Wealth Quintile at a Time. Perspectives on Psychological Science 6:912.
Osberg, Lars, and Smeeding, Timothy. 2006. ‘Fair’ Inequality? Attitudes toward Pay Differentials: The United States in Comparative Perspective. American Sociological Review 71:450473.
Osberg, Lars. 2003. Long Run Trends in Income Inequality in the United States, UK, Sweden, Germany and Canada: A Birth Cohort View. Eastern Economic Journal 29:121142.
Page, Benjamin I., and Jacobs, Lawrence R.. 2009. Class War: What Americans Really Think about Economic Inequality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Phelan, Julie E., and Rudman, Laurie A.. 2011. System Justification Beliefs, Affirmative Action, and Resistance to Equal Opportunity Organizations. Social Cognition 29:376390.
Roemer, John E., Lee, Woojin, and van der Straeten, Karine. 2007. Racism, Xenophobia, and Distribution: Multi-Issue Politics in Advanced Democracies. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Saez, Emmanuel. 2014. Striking It Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States (Updated with 2012 Preliminary Estimates), Working Paper, UC Berkeley, Calif.
Shapiro, Danielle N., Chandler, Jesse, and Mueller, Pam A.. 2013. Using Mechanical Turk to Study Clinical Populations. Clinical Psychological Science 1:213220.
Svallfors, Stefan. 1997. Worlds of Welfare and Attitudes to Redistribution: A Comparison of Eight Western Nations. European Sociological Review 13:283304.
Svallfors, Stefan. 2004. Class, Attitudes and the Welfare State: Sweden in Comparative Perspective. Social Policy and Administration 38:119138.
van der Toorn, Jojanneke, Feinberg, Matthew, Jost, John T., Kay, Aaron C., Tyler, Tom R., Willer, Robb, and Wilmuth, Caroline. 2015. A Sense of Powerlessness Fosters System Justification: Implications for the Legitimation of Authority, Hierarchy, and Government. Political Psychology 26:93110.
van der Toorn, Jojanneke, Tyler, Tom R., and Jost, John T.. 2011. More than Fair: Outcome Dependence, System Justification, and the Perceived Legitimacy of Authority Figures. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 47:127138.
Trump, Kris-Stella. 2013. The Status Quo and Perceptions of Fairness: How Income Inequality Influences Public Opinion, doctoral dissertation. Harvard University: Cambridge, Mass.
Verwiebe, Roland, and Wegener, Bernd. 2000. Social Inequality and the Perceived Income Justice Gap. Social Justice Research 13:123149.
Zajonc, Robert B. 1968. Attitudinal Effects of Mere Exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Monograph 9:127.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

British Journal of Political Science
  • ISSN: 0007-1234
  • EISSN: 1469-2112
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-of-political-science
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
×

Keywords

Type Description Title
UNKNOWN
Supplementary materials

Trump Dataset
Dataset

 Unknown
PDF
Supplementary materials

Trump supplementary material
Trump supplementary material 1

 PDF (1.4 MB)
1.4 MB

Metrics

Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed