The idea of an egalitarian society, in which social equality between people is a cultural norm, sounds good for a society to be fair to all. Many could declare their desire to be fair-minded to others. However, this cultural value of an egalitarian society is hard to achieve in social reality. Why so?
Generally, the idea of an egalitarian society where people are socially equal may sound good. It is nice and fair when it is abstract. People in general, and particularly those who belong to the high and middle classes, so-called privileged people, tend to view inequality as something impersonal and fairly distant.
However, they follow this tendency only up to the point when they encounter real intergroup comparative contexts. Then, they tend to perceive inequality with personal and social bias. As Professor of Psychological Science at the University of California, Paul Piff commented in this regard,
The new progressive social policies aim to reduce inequality and help the poor. These proposed policies may not necessarily motivate wealthy people to support such initiatives. These policies rarely make an appeal to the self-interests of people from the upper social class. Therefore, these advantaged people prefer to preserve the status quo as it benefits them.
In-group Versus Out-group Biases
In-group versus out-group bias and self-interest of people who are currently in a privileged social status play a role in resisting progress in social equality. As N. Derek Brown and his colleagues showed in their experiments (Brown et al., 2022), people of a privileged group consider social equality as good only if it increases equality within their social ingroup but not when it increases in another social group. These studies revealed that equality can appear in a negative shadow for people who have a privileged status because of in-group and out-group biases. Therefore, they misunderstand the social consequences of inequality and social disparities.
What the Old Allegory Teaches Us about Modern False Perceptions of Equality
In a deep-rooted folk parable, God appeared before Vladimir, a poor peasant, and offered to grant him one wish. God told him that he could wish anything.
“Vladimir, I will grant you one wish. Anything you wish for shall be yours.”
Vladimir was excited and started to turn over the numerous possibilities in his head.
But then God adds a stipulation: Anything that he grants Vladimir, he also grants twice to Ivan, Vladimir’s neighbor.
“Anything, I grant to you, I will give to your neighbor, Ivan, twice over.”
After giving it some thought, Vladimir replied,
“Okay, God, I want you to gouge one of my eyes out.”
This punchline tells us something quite intriguing about how paradoxically people can behave in situations of choice.
What Is the “Minimal Group Paradigm” and How Does It Work in Our Group Relations
This fable reminds me of the “Minimal Group Paradigm,” the theory that social psychologist Henri Tajfel developed in his research in the 1970s. He discovered that people willingly categorize people into in-groups and out-groups.
Once we identify ourselves with a group, we come up with explanations of why we are better and why we should all be in the same group. As it turns out, group identity hates a dry spell.
When groups are divided, we naturally favor our own. But what’s more, we prioritize immediate relative gain over absolute overall gain. In his studies, Tajfel demonstrated that the one thing we never do is try to maximize the final result for everyone. Therefore, even though we could all benefit, we’d prefer not to if it meant that the other group would benefit more.
According to Brown and his colleagues’ findings (Brown et al., 2022), even when the people of a privileged group stand to gain some benefits, they frequently refuse to assist a disadvantaged group. Even though they say they want more equality in society, they tend to keep and protect their relative advantage.
How American History Illustrates This Grim Truth About Inequality
The grim history of American racism exemplifies the paradox of social inequality. This is how the policy advocate and New York Times author describes it in her recent book, “The sum of us: What racism costs everyone and how we can prosper together.”
McGhee, H. (2022). The sum of us: What racism costs everyone and how we can prosper together. One World. In the 1940s and 1950s, some white American communities were forced to integrate public pools and parks, which grew in popularity. Then, many of them frequently chose to destroy the spaces rather than share them with their black neighbors.