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Saturday, June 18, 2022

If you rise, I fall: Equality is prevented by the misperception that it harms advantaged groups

Brown, N. D., Jacoby-Senghor, D. S., 
& Raymundo, I. (2022). 
Science advances, 8(18)


Nine preregistered studies (n = 4197) demonstrate that advantaged group members misperceive equality as necessarily harming their access to resources and inequality as necessarily benefitting them. Only when equality is increased within their ingroup, instead of between groups, do advantaged group members accurately perceive it as unharmful. Misperceptions persist when equality-enhancing policies offer broad benefits to society or when resources, and resource access, are unlimited. A longitudinal survey of the 2020 U.S. voters reveals that harm perceptions predict voting against actual equality-enhancing policies, more so than voters’ political and egalitarian beliefs. Finally two novel-groups experiments experiments reveal that advantaged participants’ harm misperceptions predict voting for inequality-enhancing policies that financially hurt them and against equality-enhancing policies that financially benefit them. Misperceptions persist even after an intervention to improve decision-making. This misperception that equality is necessarily zero-sum may explain why inequality prevails even as it incurs societal costs that harm everyone.

From the Discussion Section

Across nine studies, we show that advantaged group members misperceive equality-enhancing policies as harming their access to resources, even when the policies do no such thing. We identify this misperception across various inequality contexts (e.g., mortgage lending, salary, and hiring), various group boundaries (e.g., race, gender, disability, and arbitrary group distinctions), and different types of resources (e.g., money and jobs). Advantaged group members also misperceive policies that maintain the status quo or magnify inequality as improving their resource access, even when the policies actually leave them no better off. This tendency for advantaged group members to think that equality necessarily incurs a cost to their group lingered even when equality-enhancing policies mutually benefited disadvantaged and advantaged groups in a win-win fashion. That is, advantaged group members misperceive having greater inequality and fewer resources available to their group as more advantageous than having greater overall resources that were shared more equally.

We also find that these harm perceptions can have profound implications for individuals’ attitudinal and behavioral opposition to policies that promote equality. During the 2020 election, California Proposition 16 proposed relegalizing the use of affirmative action policies in the public sector. We find that the more white and Asian voters perceived that California Proposition 16 would harm their access to resources, the less likely they were to express support or vote for Proposition 16, independent of their political leaning. Moreover, we find that behavioral opposition occurs even when harm perceptions are objectively false and the effects of equality-enhancing policies are unambiguously positive. In an experimental setting, advantaged group participants were just as likely to vote for an inequality-enhancing policy that financially harmed them as they were to vote for an equality-enhancing policy that financially benefitted them. These studies suggest that real-world opposition to equality is likely caused by unduly negative perceptions of policies that could reduce inequality and unduly positive perceptions of policies that exacerbate it.