Let them be equal, but not too equal: study

July 10, 2017 by Mariëtte Le Roux
A new study shows aimed to understand why social imbalances persists despite humanity's best intentions to help the poor among us

Human beings display a genuine aversion to income inequality, but this compassion is eclipsed by a competing desire not to upend the social pecking order, researchers said Monday.

This may explain why social imbalances persists despite humanity's best intentions to help the poor among us, they wrote in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

It seems we are hard-wired to follow an inner dictum: "Help thy neighbour—but only so much."

In lab experiments, the research team asked participants to redistribute small amounts of money that had been unequally divided among people they did not know.

The participants tended to smooth out the worst disparities by shifting money around, the team found, but not enough to turn the tables of fortune.

Participants baulked when "winners become losers and losers become winners," the authors concluded.

Many previous studies have found that humans, generally, are deeply uncomfortable with .

The new research by Chinese and American researchers was an attempt to understand why social disparities remain despite this apparently compassionate propensity.

The team tested more than 1,000 people—children and adults—from different cultural backgrounds. The participants were from India, China, the United States, and included a group of Tibetan herders who live isolated from modern society.

Each trial participant was asked to look at a number of screens, each of which displayed the portraits of two people with a pile of coins attributed to each.

One person always had a higher pile than the other.

Forecasts from the US Congressional Budget Office on health coverage under President Trump's planned replacement for Obamacare

The volunteers were then asked if they wanted to transfer a predetermined amount of money from the person with the most coins to the other.

Participants were much less likely to agree to a transfer if it would turn the poorer person into the richer one.

Link to 'Trumpcare'?

In the Tibetan herder group, the aversion to rank reversal was "exceptionally high," said the study.

In children who did the tests, aversion to inequality was clearly measurable from the age of four.

However, "rank reversal aversion" emerged only two years later, the researchers found, "suggesting that this norm is learned later in development."

As for why humans behave in this way, the researchers speculated that it may be a question of survival.

Many animals have stable pecking orders "to reduce in-group violence", they wrote.

The authors said hierarchy fulfils a psychological need for structure in individuals. In a group context, it boosts cooperation.

Understanding these human drivers are important in analysing the conflict that arises when people seek political reforms "that upset hierarchies," the authors wrote.

They cited opposition by "relatively well-off middle-class Americans" to the expansion of medical aid under Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act on the premise that it would allow "some groups to unfairly 'cut in line'."

"One reason inequality persists is because seem to have an instinct to want to preserve existing hierarchies," study co-author Benjamin Ho of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie in the United States, told AFP.

Explore further: The vicious circle of inequality

More information: Wenwen Xie et al. Rank reversal aversion inhibits redistribution across societies, Nature Human Behaviour (2017). DOI: 10.1038/s41562-017-0142 , www.nature.com/articles/s41562-017-0142

Related Stories

The vicious circle of inequality

May 8, 2017

How to distribute resources between different individuals and groups is one of the basic dilemmas of social life. All known surplus-producing societies are organised as social hierarchies where some groups of people have ...

Support for democracy linked to income inequality

November 17, 2016

Voter satisfaction with democracy may have less to do with who actually wins an election and more to do with income inequality, or the gap between rich and poor, indicates a new study by Michigan State University political ...

Knowing one's place in a social hierarchy

December 7, 2016

When you start a new job, it's normal to spend the first day working out who's who in the pecking order, information that will come in handy for making useful connections in the future. In an fMRI study published December ...

Turns out 'dirty money' does bother people

December 20, 2016

People tend to view money through a moral lens and are more likely to turn down or donate stolen bills and coins than "clean" cash, a new study has found.

Recommended for you

The oldest plesiosaur was a strong swimmer

December 14, 2017

Plesiosaurs were especially effective swimmers. These long extinct "paddle saurians" propelled themselves through the oceans by employing "underwater flight"—similar to sea turtles and penguins. Paleontologist from the ...

20 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

dlethe
1.4 / 5 (9) Jul 11, 2017
They must have limited the study to liberal snowflakes. It is all about redistribution of other people's money.

Participants baulked when "winners become losers and losers become winners," the authors concluded.

Conservatives don't think that way.
Eikka
4.3 / 5 (6) Jul 11, 2017
Conservatives don't think that way.


Yes they do, especially the conservatives do, since the whole point of conservatism is to conserve the social order against any change, and/or reverse the change to conserve an earlier "better times".

The whole spiel about rags to riches and everyone's freedom to strive for their fortune is just so much lip service. What's really the point is, "fuck you, got mine".
Dingbone
Jul 11, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
aksdad
1.7 / 5 (6) Jul 11, 2017
"Income inequality" is a useless metric. It tells us nothing except how envious those who are obsessed with it are. Income disparity is mostly influenced by personal choices and willingness to work; a truth that is so obvious that it's astonishing that there are actually people who have deluded themselves into thinking that reaping the rewards of your choices and effort is unfair.

And Erika, there are numerous examples of people escaping poverty through their own effort all around you. Conservatives generally believe that allowing people freedom and opportunity is the best way help them escape poverty; help them help themselves. Handouts are demeaning. Work is ennobling.
katesisco
not rated yet Jul 11, 2017
Well, in the Israeli kibbutzim, it was discovered that people had to own something for themselves exclusively. In our political history, during the middle 1900s, a platform was advocated that the rich be limited to 10x the poorest. The ancient Greeks, upon recovering from the Dark Ages of Greece where there may have been a popular uprising against the elite, decided to use psychological ploys to rule. The council of elders (60) proposed all should hold political office but of course, most were unavailable when their turn came.
We have a plethora of results and positions in history to draw from yet we are fed a study using a few. I notice this in most of the internet 'studies.' I find this the greatest drawback of the internet and of course it violates T Berners-Lee's idea of internet info.
PTTG
5 / 5 (4) Jul 11, 2017
@Dingbone, Two questions:

1: Why didn't the free market keep prices down before Obamacare?
2: How can the free market possibly work for medical care?
Eikka
5 / 5 (3) Jul 12, 2017
Income disparity is mostly influenced by personal choices and willingness to work; a truth that is so obvious that it's astonishing that there are actually people who have deluded themselves into thinking that reaping the rewards of your choices and effort is unfair.


It's impossible to make choices out of options that are not present for you.

How, for example, do you think a ghetto poor could move out of the city in search of work when they can't afford to move?

The socio-economic mobility in the US is quite low. If you're born poor in the bottom 20% income bracket, you're 50% likely to never get out of it. Only 4% of the people born in the bottom 20% end up in the top 20%, while the opposite happens twice as often thanks to the growing income disparity.
Eikka
4.2 / 5 (5) Jul 12, 2017
https://www.ameri...america/
By international standards, the United States has an unusually low level of intergenerational mobility: our parents' income is highly predictive of our incomes as adults. Intergenerational mobility in the United States is lower than in France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway and Denmark. Among high-income countries for which comparable estimates are available, only the United Kingdom had a lower rate of mobility than the United States


Now, it can't be that the American (and British) people are so fundamentally different to all the rest of the countries. It's ironic that in more socialist countries it's more likely to end up from rags to riches than in the US, which in reality is highly stacked against anyone rising up in social class.

Maybe that's why the "self made man" is so glorified. The greater the handicap, the greater the accomplishment.
drrobodog
5 / 5 (4) Jul 12, 2017
Income disparity is mostly influenced by personal choices and willingness to work; a truth that is so obvious that it's astonishing that there are actually people who have deluded themselves into thinking that reaping the rewards of your choices and effort is unfair.

Willingness to work has nothing to do with it. Low wage jobs usually have the longest hours per week with the most intensive work.

Doing more low wage work will not change ones income disparity.
Getting many other people to do low wage work for you does, but this requires knowledge (education), finance, connections, and a bit of luck.

When you say 'willingness to work' you actually mean 'ability to play the game', and when you say 'rewards of your choices', you actually mean 'rewards of your stacked hand'.
Eikka
4 / 5 (4) Jul 12, 2017
Conservatives generally believe that allowing people freedom and opportunity is the best way help them escape poverty


There are two kinds of freedom/liberty, negative and positive. Freedom from something, and freedom to something. The conservative in the US generally only talks about negative freedoms, as in freedom from slavery, freedom from censorship etc.

Negative liberty alone is not sufficient for people to be truly free, because a man is still not free to, say, build a factory because he lacks the resources to do so. Opportunity is not merely the absence of oppression and tyranny, and leaving people without the liberty to control their own society and environment in the positive sense leaves them at the mercy of those who are more powerful - those who already got their riches and have that liberty.

The conservative believes positive liberty to be an oxymoron, because it implies infringing on other people's negative liberties. However, that is democracy.
Eikka
4 / 5 (4) Jul 12, 2017
The real oxymoron is the republican conservative who believes that the country should have no government to enact any social policy except the absence of it - merely acting as a night watch and not partial in what happens - in spite of recognizing the destructive power of capital in principle and observing it in practice.

The latter the conservative blames on the government for "picking winners and losers", so accusing them of misallocating resources at the benefit of all the wrong people.

The sentiment stems from age-old religious dogma where God makes the right people prosper and the bad people fail, automatically, so all things being in place and correct, as long as you let God sort it out, poverty is only the fault of the poor themselves. It's even at the background of the constitution. It's a self-consistent idea and explains why all the wrong in the world is not your fault, and why you need not do anything about it - as long as you're a Christian calvinist.
Eikka
3 / 5 (2) Jul 12, 2017
"- as long as you're a Christian calvinist."

or an objectivist, I might add. That's simply replacing God with another sort of moral absolutism which is based on blind faith in the objectivity of your subjective experience.
Zzzzzzzz
3 / 5 (2) Jul 12, 2017
They must have limited the study to liberal snowflakes. It is all about redistribution of other people's money.

Participants baulked when "winners become losers and losers become winners," the authors concluded.

Conservatives don't think that way.


Conservatives think? What planet do you live on?
Zzzzzzzz
4 / 5 (4) Jul 12, 2017
"Income inequality" is a useless metric. It tells us nothing except how envious those who are obsessed with it are. Income disparity is mostly influenced by personal choices and willingness to work; a truth that is so obvious that it's astonishing that there are actually people who have deluded themselves into thinking that reaping the rewards of your choices and effort is unfair.

And Erika, there are numerous examples of people escaping poverty through their own effort all around you. Conservatives generally believe that allowing people freedom and opportunity is the best way help them escape poverty; help them help themselves. Handouts are demeaning. Work is ennobling.


Does this idiot EVER display a shred of intelligence? Time for the ignore button.....
Dingbone
Jul 12, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Dingbone
Jul 12, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Dingbone
Jul 12, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Caliban
5 / 5 (1) Jul 14, 2017
The essential thing about this study is that it removes any real-world context from a decision making process whose outcome obviously will be affected by the lack of it.

If subjects had been told, for instance, that big money holder "A" had obtained all of his fortune via operating sweatshops or from human trafficking, how do you think the subjects woulod have felt inclined to redistribute the money?

Sadly, this is just more confirmation-bias driven pseudoscience designed to prop up the status quo -fake research and findings designed(inadvertently or not) to support the notion that humans BY NATURE respect and admire those that have more in terms of financial status.

If this is such a glaring flaw that I spotted it, just how much can you trust the motives and methods of the "researchers"

Caliban
not rated yet Jul 14, 2017
Conservatives think? What planet do you live on?
I'd say, that the current situation is just the result of absence of thinking at the side of democrats. The communism in every form will never works as cheaply and effectively, like the free market. In its consequences it protects consumers less than the free market.


Actually, the passage of the affordable care act and the VERY forseeable increase in rates across the board is more properly understood to be proof that BOTH SIDES were thinking of the best ways to attain a public-relations triumph, while continuing to enable the blood-funnels of Vampire Capitalism to drain the host.

The ACA was and is no panacaea, and was only an improvement to the health care system in terms of the total number of individuals for which coverage was POSSIBLE.

Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (1) Jul 14, 2017
The ACA was and is no panacaea, and was only an improvement to the health care system in terms of the total number of individuals for which coverage was POSSIBLE.

Single payer. Healthcare is a right, not a privilege...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.