Fair Enough? The Inequality Paradox, Inequality Awareness, and System Justification

Picture society. Some people are rich, some are poor and that’s just the way it is. After all, rich people have worked hard to get where they are, and anyone with the right mind can, too. Poor people would not be able to handle the money anyway. Then, you find out that 26 rich people own as much wealth as half of the world’s population together. Are you still so sure? In this article, you will learn about how people perceive economic inequality, how they rationalize it, and why they generally do nothing to fight it.

In a time where conservative ideologies are on the rise, and social disparities are growing, economic inequality is increasing dramatically  [1]. Currently, inequality has reached its highest peak in 40 years [2]; think about how, since 2015, 1% of the world population has owned more net wealth than the remaining 99%  [3]. Economic disparities are pervasive, and harm both individuals and societies with issues that span from lower solidarity and happiness [4] [5], to an increasing number of homicides and violence [6], and as far as biodiversity loss [7]: in fact, more equal countries fare better on several indicators of wellbeing, such as physical and mental health, or social relationships [8].

Yet, research has shown that greater inequality is not associated with an increasing demand for redistribution of wealth [9], even though according to scientific evidence, greater equality would be in anyone’s best interest, regardless of individual status or wealth of the country [8]. With this picture in mind, one cannot help but wonder: why is there no collective struggle towards greater equality, just as there is for other issues such as climate change or equal rights?

“Unequality” As the Ideal

The answer is neither easy nor certain. One possibility might be that people actually wish for inequality. In an American study, participants were shown three pie charts picturing the wealth distribution of hypothetical countries: a perfectly equal one, one with moderate levels of inequality (inspired by Sweden) and an unequal one (representing the U.S.). Most participants chose the second option as the nation they preferred to live in, thus expressing their desire for some inequality. Moreover, when describing their ideal world, they reportedly wished for the richest quintile of the U.S. to own about 32% of total wealth, more than three times the wealth they wished for the poorest quintile [10]. It appears that even when imagining an ideal world, people wish for a social stratification with richer classes on top and poorer classes at the bottom. Several other studies produced similar results  [11] [12] [13]: people want “unequality” [14], that is a society less unequal than reality, but still hierarchically structured. This happens not only when asking about distribution of income, but also wealth and CEO-worker pay gaps, with Americans wishing for a ratio of 7:1 (in other words, for every 1.000$ earned by a factory worker, a CEO should ideally earn 7.000$) [14] [15].

One element leading people to prefer “unequality” is their sense of fairness. Both in the real world and in the lab, there are certain characteristics that lead some people to deserve more, and others to deserve less, such as effort, morality, or ability. Fairness, which has its evolutionary roots in cooperation, leads people to punish or reward others, and to believe society should reflect these individual characteristics [16]. Support for hierarchy had evolutionary purposes besides fairness and cooperation: evidence for this lies in the animal kingdom. Most mammals are organized into hierarchical systems; presumably, hierarchy had the function of settling tensions and competitions over resources through status signalling, instead of actual fighting [17]. Additional proof of the evolutionary origin of hierarchy endorsement can also be found in male attractiveness and strength. In the ancestral landscape, these two characteristics signalled and increased status; hence, self-interest would have led them to endorse hierarchy since it favoured their own position. This is actually the case: males who are more muscular and/or perceive themselves as more attractive are also more attached to hierarchies and less egalitarian [18, 19].

Nevertheless, the “unequality” that people desire might still look like an idyllic picture when compared with the reality that countries across the whole world are facing right now. Yet, individuals and societies do not seem to engage in collective action to achieve the level of equality they desire, even though historically it has been possible: even in the U.S., 60 years ago, the pay gap ratio between CEOs and workers was 20:1, almost 20 times lower than what it is today [20]. Even ancestrally, hunter-gatherer societies likely had low wealth disparities, since wealth could not be accumulated within lineages [21].

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: People Underestimate Inequality

At this point, the answer may lie in the severe underestimation of economic inequality as an issue. Certainly, on average, people are aware that some inequality exists [10]. For example, when asked the percentage of total wealth owned by each quintile of population in the U.S., Americans did believe that the top 20% owned more than the rest combined, that is, more than half of total American wealth. What they did not realize was that it amounted to 84% [10][11].  Similar results were found with Australian [13] and teenage participants [22].

This unawareness does not seem to be limited to wealth distribution: when it comes to pay gap estimations, people are just as oblivious. Individuals from 16 nations (e.g. Israel, Denmark and Australia) had to guess how much a CEO and a factory worker earn, and in all countries the estimate of the ratio between the two was lower than the actual one. Once again, the case of the U.S. is worth mentioning: while individuals estimated a ratio of about 30:1 (i.e. for every 1.000$ earned by a factory worker, a CEO earns 30.000$), U.S. citizens are faced with a shocking 354:1 ratio (for every 1.000$ earned by a factory worker, a CEO actually earns [15].

If unawareness is the problem, then knowledge should be the solution. Following this idea, research has mainly focused on correcting misperceptions of economic inequality to drive people to endorse redistribution [23]. In a study by Hauser and colleagues conducted in the United States, for example, groups of five participants played a public goods game where players were assigned an ‘income’ reflecting each American quintile. Then, participants contributed to a common pool and were given the possibility to punish and reward fellow players, if they believed that someone contributed more or less than they should. Results showed that when participants were aware of the income of players, they rewarded poorer participants and punished richer ones [24]. This leads us to believe that information (at least for contexts and societies similar to the United States) could be the key to the issue. This strategy, however, seems to be successful only when it is self-serving: when people learn that they are overestimating their own position in the distribution (they are poorer than what they believed) they do, in fact, support redistribution more. Those who underestimate their position (they are richer than what they believed), instead, support redistribution less, especially when they are right-wing and believe that their position in the distribution is due to personal effort [25]. This evidence is consistent with other research investigating self-interest theories: people will tolerate, support or reject inequality depending on what favours their own position [26]. The link between self-interest and support for redistribution dates back to our ancestral history and conflicts of interest: stronger males, for example, endorse policies aligned with the interests of their own group, so that while bodily strength increases support for redistribution in poor males, the opposite is true for rich males [27].

Nevertheless, there are certain aspects of attitudes towards economic inequality that cannot be explained by self-interest alone. In fact, although it is true that higher-class individuals tend to be more tolerant of inequality and less supportive of wealth redistribution, evidence shows that even lower-income, working class individuals can endorse a dramatically unequal status quo that in no way benefits them [9]. Certainly, these people are not driven by self-interest. 

As Long As It’s Fair: The Many Faces of System Justification

In order to understand the paradox of economic inequality, we must first realize that the matter is not one of individuals, but one of social classes. Social standing defines people’s access to food, housing, education, healthcare and opportunities [28]; as such, it has incredible control over someone’s life, and makes up a great part of one’s identity. In fact, our status shapes the way we feel, think and act [29], and in a situation of high economic inequality, the disparities between every rung of the social ladder become harsher, more visible, and thus more relevant [30]. Because of this, individuals constantly have to face social comparisons, and extremely unfair ones, no less. This can prove to be heavily taxing. In fact, the notion that something that holds such control over one’s wellbeing is unfair or illegitimate breeds uncertainty and existential threat in individuals [31] [32] [33]; therefore, in order to protect the self, people will believe that the societies and systems they depend on are just and good [9]. This process is known as system justification and serves a palliative function by dampening the effects of cognitive dissonance, guilt, anxiety and moral outrage [34]. For example, in a study set in Spain, participants who read a newspaper article that legitimized economic inequality, reported a more unequal distribution of resources as ideal [35]. Since people legitimize the system and believe it to be fair, they will also believe there is no reason to change it: for this reason, people with higher system-justifying beliefs tend to oppose several types of redistribution, for example governmental or nongovernmental redistributive acts (such as taxes and charity) [36], and wish for an economic distribution similar to the one they believe is real [35].

Stereotyping is an example of system legitimization. According to the Stereotype Content Model, social groups are stereotyped along two dimensions, warmth and competence, usually clustered so that low warmth is associated with high competence and vice versa [37]. While poor individuals are stereotyped as being warm, but incompetent, the reverse is true for the rich. This corresponds to a double process, where the victim of the stereotype is at the same time denigrated (victim-derogation) and enhanced (victim-enhancement) as compensation: examples are the tropes of “poor but happy”, or “rich but cold” [38]. Stereotyping within the dimensions of low-high warmth and low-high competence serves the justification of the system by reinforcing the notion that both rich and poor people deserve their position on the social ladder: those with high status (and specifically trustworthy professionals, such as doctors) deserve wealth because of their higher competence, whereas those with low status are categorized as either untrustworthy and lazy, thus completely undeserving (such as homeless people), or as trustworthy, and meriting help and pity but not wealth, considering their lower competence (such as disabled people) [39]. Consistently with this evidence, use of ambivalent stereotypes is more common in countries with higher income inequality [40], suggesting that citizens of unequal countries may feel greater need to stereotype rich and poor individuals.

The motivation to believe that society is fair is universal and, as such, is common among both high-status and low-status individuals (in fact, system legitimization is frequently stronger among minorities [41], consistently with what was stated about the working class). Rich and poor people, however, are likely to justify the system in different ways.

In Western societies, for one, people of high social standing are more likely to legitimize the system by making dispositional attributions for economic disparities: this means they will more likely think that wealth, poverty and inequality are caused by individual characteristics (such as hard work, laziness, or effort), as well as innate or biological ones [42]. Similarly, they will also believe that their own position in society is due to personal merit and have stronger feelings of entitlement, that is, they believe they deserve more than others [43]. This happens even when status is induced experimentally. In a study, university students played a rigged Monopoly game, in which a flip of a coin decided whether they would be rich or poor. Rich players were given more money to start with, rolled the dice two times, and received more money when they passed “Go”. Even though the unfairness of the situation was obvious, during the game the rich players were louder, showed greater displays of dominance, power and success (both verbal and non-verbal), were more insensitive towards the other player and more importantly, reported that their victory was caused by their effort and actions during the game [44]. The belief that situations are the result of one’s own actions, rather than context or luck, seems related to the higher sense of personal control people feel in their lives [28]. In non-Western countries, however, the situation appears reversed: Ethiopian undergraduates, for example, made more situational attributions when their parents had higher incomes, possibly because of the collectivist nature of Ethiopian society [45]. Moreover, when comparing West-Indian isles, Barbadian adolescents (wealthier) were found to provide more situational attributions than Dominican adolescents (poorer), partly due to media information they had access to [46]. When comparing Muslim and Christian undergraduates in Lebanon, instead, Muslims of higher socioeconomic status provided more structural attributions than low class Muslims, but the same did not happen with Christians [47]. This evidence suggests that in non-Western societies, meritocracy beliefs may serve a system-legitimizing function for the lower classes, rather than the higher classes. Regardless of social status, however, individuals who believe that wealth is a result of effort, while poverty comes from laziness (i.e., people who make dispositional attributions), show lower support for redistribution [36] [48] and particularly welfare policies; this likely arises from the ancestral need for detecting cheaters in small-scale social exchanges [49].

In Western societies, people of low social classes more commonly accept unfair social hierarchies by believing that people have a chance to change their current position [50]. The belief that class boundaries are permeable, and that one can change their social status with relative ease, is known as “social mobility” belief. Social mobility beliefs, for example, lead minority members to perceive themselves less as discriminated [51]. Individuals tend to overestimate upward social mobility while at the same time underestimating downward mobility: in other words, they believe that it is easier to gain social standing and more difficult to lose it, than it actually is [52]. A study set in the U.S. showed that people who believed in high social mobility were also more tolerant of economic inequality: this may happen because people deem mobile society as fairer, but also because they believe that they too have a greater chance to climb society’s ranks [53].

The need to justify the system increases in certain conditions. One is when the system is threatened [54]: for example, in one study, reading information about global warming lead people to become more sceptic about climate change, because it contradicted the idea of a just world [55]. Another is when people feel low personal control [54] and have to rely on the system to feel they have a hold on their lives: this is the case of people living in poverty. A third condition of increased legitimization is when the system is (or is perceived as) inescapable, and lastly, when people highly depend on it [54]. Living in a country with high economic disparities, where differences between the lower and the upper classes are more salient, more visible and potentially perceived as unfair, can result highly threatening, especially since society exacerbates the importance of status and roles. If we add that to how pervasive the economic system is in everyday life, and how its stratification shapes everyone’s lives, it comes as no surprise that people will feel a greater need for believing that it is fair (especially when they are poor). Therefore, they may be driven to justify it further, thus rejecting the idea of changing it through the redistribution of wealth.

There is reason to believe that system justification had evolutionary purposes: it likely contributed to social cohesion and social order by fostering perceptions of legitimacy and social harmony, which in turn lead to greater chances of survival of the social system (compared to less stable systems afflicted with internal conflict) [56]. Furthermore, evidence from neuroscientific and ethological research suggests that system-justification had an evolutionary origin. The amygdala, for example, is a brain structure involved in threat detection and the navigation of hierarchical groups: individuals with thicker grey matter in the amygdala learn more easily the ranks of members of a social system [57]. In fact, people with greater amygdala volume, regardless of social status, also possess higher levels of system justification, and are less likely to join protests [58] (although no causal link can be established) [56]. From an evolutionary standpoint, it is likely that individuals who were highly sensible to threat and were better accustomed to social hierarchies had greater chances of survival in a social system [56].

As for the animal kingdom, species living in complex societies must keep in mind several dominant-subordinate relationships, which leads to the greater development of brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex [59]. This is particularly true for humans, who belong to several hierarchies simultaneously: system justification may aid in the rationalization of such overlapping relative positions [17]. Furthermore, both animals and humans exhibit stress responses in unpredictable situations, even when these are associated to greater rewards [60; 61], which suggests that animals as well prefer unpleasant certainty over uncertainty with possibility of improvement [56]. Yet class disparities of contemporary societies are unprecedented in the animal kingdom: according to some scholars, when considering the extreme impact of inequality between rich and poor individuals, no animal society comes close to humans [17, 56].


In conclusion, people do reject high economic disparities and wish for a more equal world. However, they also believe that everything is fine the way it is and that society is fair, because why wouldn’t it be? We will walk extreme lengths to avoid facing the fact that the world is not as perfect as we wish it was. Luckily, data tells us that there is reason for hope. We live in the age of progress: mortality rates, violence prevalence, and poverty levels are impressively lower when compared to 30, 100, or 200 years ago. [62]. It is true that people are negatively affected by relative class disparities regardless of wealth. Yet, the increasing interest in this issue in academia and in society may lead to greater awareness, ultimately increasing motivation to fight for equality [29]: for example, when people learn about low social mobility, they are less willing to defend their society, because they believe it to be less meritocratic [63]. With inequality on the rise, knowledge may be a powerful weapon. It’s not the only answer, but it leads us to the one question: “Is this really fair?”

If you wish to know more about how you fare in this society, and how inequality affects you and everyone around you, here are a few resources:





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