People who think the economic system is fair and legitimate react less negatively to extreme manifestations of economic inequality, such as homelessness, according to the new research.

These differences in reaction are even detectable at the physiological level, the researchers report. The research offers new insights into why we have varying reactions to inequality.

“Research has shown that people generally have an aversion to unequal distributions of resources, an example of which may be a person we see sleeping on a grate or lacking access to basic necessities, healthcare, and education,” explains lead author Shahrzad Goudarzi, a doctoral candidate in the psychology department at New York University.

“Yet many people either pay little attention to or are otherwise unbothered by rising economic disparities—responses that some may have difficulty understanding. This research begins to explain such differences: beliefs that legitimize and justify the economic system diminish our deep-seated aversion to inequality, buffering us against negative emotions in response to it.”

A FAIR SYSTEM?

Previous research has shown that humans, and some other primates, have developed an evolutionary aversion towards inequality in distribution of goods and resources. For instance, children as young as six years old have been found to refuse items if it meant having more than their peers.

Nonetheless, public opinion data suggest that economic inequality does not bother a large percentage of Americans. For example, a 2018 Gallup Poll showed that one-third of Americans are satisfied with the existing distribution of income and wealth. Such acceptance, despite general preferences for greater equality, raises the question of how people manage such contradictions.

To address this, the researchers conducted a series of six experiments. They used participants from Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk” and Prolific Academic, tools in which individuals are compensated for completing small tasks and which are frequently used in running behavioral science studies, for two of these (studies one and two). Four others (studies three through six) involved college undergraduates.

In studies one and two, researchers asked participants to share their views of the American economic system by registering their agreement with statements such as the following: “Economic positions are legitimate reflections of people’s achievements” and “If people work hard, they almost always get what they want.”

A week later, some viewed a video in which a homeless interviewee described their circumstances, recounting their routines and struggles. Separate control groups viewed mundane videos, depicting interviews about fishing and producing coffee.

Those who believed the American economic system was fair, legitimate, and justified (“system justifiers”), compared with those who did not, reported feeling less negative emotions after watching videos depicting homelessness.

PHYSIOLOGICAL REACTION TO ECONOMIC INEQUALITY

Studies three through five replicated these steps, then added a new component: researchers measured participants’ physiological responses by gauging their skin conductance levels and subtle facial muscle movements. This method affords a deeper accounting of our responses because it captures involuntary reactions to stimuli—negative arousal and emotional distress. Here, economic system justifiers showed comparatively low levels of negative affect and arousal while viewing people experiencing homelessness. By contrast, economic system justification was not associated with emotional reactions to the control videos.

Study six went a step further in that researchers aimed to capture emotions in the context of people’s daily lives. In this study, undergraduates received four text messages a day for nine consecutive days, prompting them to complete a short survey using their smartphones. The researchers designed two of the daily surveys to measure reactions to inequality, with one survey asking participants to indicate whether they had encountered someone they considered very poor and another whether they had encountered someone very rich compared with themselves; the order of these surveys was randomized across days.

Regardless of whether participants reported such an encounter, researchers asked them about their emotions—either in light of the encounter (if one was reported) or over the preceding two hours (if no encounter was reported).

Consistent with the previous studies, those identified as “system justifiers” reported less negative emotion after their everyday exposure to rich and poor people than did people who were more critical of the existing economic system.

“These results provide the strongest evidence to date that system-justifying beliefs diminish aversion to inequality in economic contexts,” observes coauthor Eric Knowles, an associate professor of psychology.