Study finds exposure to inequality can reduce support for income redistribution

The presence of a poor person can discourage people from supporting redistributive policies, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For the study, the researchers approached 2,591 passersby in affluent, predominantly white areas around Boston and asked them to sign a petition. The study was designed so that the pedestrian first walked past a black or white research volunteer — who either wore extremely shabby clothes to indicate they lived in poverty or were well-dressed to indicate they were affluent — before being asked to sign the petition.

One of the petitions supported reducing the use of plastic bags, while the other supported a 4 percent income tax increase on individuals with annual incomes of $1 million and more.

Passing by a poor or affluent person had no effect on support for the petition on plastic bags. But the study found that the passersby were less likely to support the “millionaire’s tax” in the presence of a poor person than in the presence of an affluent person. Overall, the pedestrians were 4.4 percentage points less likely to support the tax increase in the presence of a poor person.

PsyPost interviewed Melissa L. Sands of Harvard University about her study. Read her responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Sands: We’ve all had the experience of encountering people who look like they might be homeless in affluent public spaces. This occurs in cities and town of all sizes, in the U.S. and around the world. The presence of poor people in affluent spaces is one of the most universal features of economic inequality. And yet, social scientists know very little about the behavioral effects of this experience, particularly on the types of people who are most likely to vote and participate to politics. Does being exposed to visible symbols or reminders of inequality affect political behavior? In particular, do these encounters change people’s willingness to support redistributive policies (i.e., policies which transfer wealth from those at the top to those at the bottom)?

What should the average person take away from your study?

One broad take-away is that context in which we make political decisions can be easily manipulated. Something as transient as exposure to a person who looks poor has observable implications for decision-making. Even when we’re not consciously aware of it, exposure to inequality can have a large and consequential impact on political behavior. More specifically, exposure to inequality can discourage people from supporting policies that might help alleviate economic inequality. This contributes to the mounting evidence from the social sciences that extreme inequality has negative consequences for human behavior.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

We’re in the early stages of this type of research, so there are still many unknowns. For example, how do the results generalize beyond the affluent, white individuals who reside in a politically left-leaning coastal city like Boston? People who choose to live in a place like Boston may hold certain beliefs about systemic racism and persistent historical disadvantages, which shape how they respond to poor people of different races. One of the first extensions I’m planning is to conduct the study somewhere that’s more politically conservative. In the future I also plan to vary other attributes of the actors, such as gender, age, and ethnicity.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I’d like to invite researchers who are interested in collaborating on replications of this experiment to get in touch with me. There’s a lot more work to be done!