Humans want equality, researchers found—as long as the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor

Upending this status quo won’t be easy.
Upending this status quo won’t be easy.
Image: Reuters/Carlos Jasso
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Human beings largely object to income inequality and are willing to correct injustice—unless, of course, it rattles their status quo.

That’s the conclusion of a recent study looking at how far people would go to redistribute resources between the haves and have nots. Participants fiercely objected to “when winners become losers and losers become winners,” researchers note in the paper, published in the latest issue of Nature Human Behaviour.

Researchers initially recruited Indian, American, and Chinese participants take part in an experimental game they called “the redistribution game.” The gist of the game was simple: Participants were given a number of scenarios that would redistribute a fixed sum from a richer person to someone poorer. Participants were told the original standing of wealth was assigned randomly.

In the first scenario, participants had to decide if they wanted to transfer two coins from person A (who already had four coins) to person B (who had one). Researchers note the “transfer would reduce inequality,” (as there’s less of a gap between them), but person B would end up one coin richer than person A, reversing their status.

In the second version of game, participants were asked whether they’d transfer one coin to person B (where person A ended up with three coins and person B with two coins). Researchers ran a third and fourth scenario that allowed participants to transfer coins from person A to B, where the outcome still left person A with significantly more coins.

Researchers found that 77% of participants were willing to redistribute income from rich to poor—so long as it didn’t make person A poorer than person B. Just 45% accepted the redistribution when it changed the hierarchy. The results showed people are both interested in equality and preserving the status quo, but if these two inclinations clashed, most participants would maintain the inequality.

The study then ran the game with an entirely different sample: a group of nomadic Tibetan herders. Researchers were interested to see whether the results would differ when the participants lived apart from modern society. They didn’t: The results showed that the Tibetan participants were actually the most resistant to reversing established hierarchies. Just like the main sample, Tibetan herders were happy to redistribute income, so long as the original hierarchy wasn’t disturbed.

Researchers then simplified the game and recruited children, to better understand when the human aversion to reversing hierarchies develops. The results indicate that children aged 3-4 years old and 5-6 years old showed no motivation to maintain the status quo, but they developed an inclination to remove inequality after the age of 4. Aversion to reversing hierarchies developed between the ages of 6 and 7, and increased more slowly between the ages of 7 and 10.

Researchers could only speculate as to why people are reluctant to upend the status quo. They suggest that it might come down to survival: We may want to maintain hierarchies for fear of sparking anarchy. Researchers note, “Evolutionary theory suggests that groups with stable hierarchies have a fitness advantage.”

The results of the study could help explain why some groups oppose political reforms that reduce income inequality. Researchers point to a 2014 study found that people who earned just above the minimum wage were most likely to oppose increases to minimum wage, for fear they would lose rank in the social pecking order.

These insights also highlight the sheer difficulty of political reform for policymakers. So long as people want to maintain hierarchies, the road to greater equality is an uphill one.