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Attitudes Toward Economic Inequality: The Illusory Agreement

  • Rasmus T. Pedersen and Diana C. Mutz

Recent studies of attitudes toward economic inequality suggest that most people around the world prefer very low levels of inequality, despite well-known trends toward greater inequality within many countries. Even within countries, people across the political spectrum are said to be in remarkable agreement about the ideal level of economic inequality. Using survey data from 40 countries and a novel survey experiment in the United States, we show that this apparent agreement is illusory. When relying on a widely used cross-national survey measure of Ideal Pay Ratios, preferred levels of inequality are heavily influenced by two well-documented sources of perceptual distortion: the anchoring effect and ratio bias. These effects are substantial and many times larger than the influence of fundamental political predispositions. As a result, these cross-national survey measures tapping preferences regarding economic inequality produce misleading conclusions about desired levels of inequality.

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Rasmus T. Pedersen is a Senior Researcher at VIVE – The Danish Center for Social Science Research, Herluf Trolles Gade 11, Copenhagen, Denmark ( Diana C. Mutz is a Professor in the Department of Political Science and Communication, University of Pennsylvania, 208 S. 37th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6215 ( This work was supported by The Danish Council for Independent Research [grant number 12-127749]. The authors acknowledge helpful feedback from anonymous reviewers as well as Eunji Kim. To view supplementary material for this article, please visit

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Political Science Research and Methods
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