Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Here's what a new study tells us about fairness and inequality

Cyclists pass by tents of homeless people in front of St. Thomas Church in Berlin, Germany women business businesswoman businessman corporation corporate finance wall street stock exchange capitalism private ownership board c-suite ceos cfos corporation united states us america wall street change gender parity equality goldman sachs davos industry representation fair finance fiscal financial economics economies trading trade price money profit value men male female change changing 2020 future

Those who believe in the economy economic systems fairness, react less to poverty and homeless. Image: REUTERS/Annegret Hilse

James Devitt
Deputy Director of Media Relations , New York University
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Inequality is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:


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.

Have you read?

“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.”


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.


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.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Equity, Diversity and InclusionEconomic GrowthFinancial and Monetary Systems
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

How focused giving can unlock billions and catapult women’s wealth

Mark Muckerheide

May 21, 2024


About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum