Many modern societies have made great strides in promoting social equality. Some nations promote equality more than others. In Western and northern European countries, social equality has advanced quickly. The U.S. equality movement is slower. Voters and policymakers often oppose equality legislation.
Why do conservatives and liberals oppose fair proposals that benefit all? A series of studies have shown that they just misunderstand contexts and, therefore, resist social equality.
Here Is What the Previous Studies on “Zero-sum” Mindsets Revealed
In my previous articles, I presented several experiments conducted by N. Derek Brown and his colleagues (Brown et al., 2022). Their results showed the hidden role that people’s “zero-sum” thinking plays in making them have opposing thoughts, attitudes, and actions.
They agree with equality and see it as a positive change in their privileged social group. However, they oppose equality once it increases between their own and other social groups.
The following experiments produced even more striking results. Researchers formed a fictitious “privileged” group of Rattlers and offered them the chance to take actions endorsing or opposing certain equality policies.
Unexpectedly for researchers, the Rattlers perceived the win-win scenario to be marginally more detrimental to their interests than the lose-lose proposal. Therefore, they preferred “the lose-lose” option over “the win-win” option as a desired policy. These findings are extremely compelling and “grim.” As Derek Brown and his co-authors noted (Brown et al., 2022),
“The misperception that equality is harmful is stubbornly persistent, resisting both reason and incentivization.”
Researchers attempted to address scarcity concerns and assure people that a more equitable policy would not affect their opportunities. Nevertheless, people tend to oppose such equality policies.
What the Final Eagles-Rattlers Experiment Showed
In a second Eagles-Rattlers experiment, the Rattlers were given two options to reduce inequality. In the “unharmful” option, the Eagles get more resources without any change for the Rattlers. The “harmful” option involved the Rattlers getting less, with no change for the Eagles.
Researchers presented those options side-by-side. They wanted to help people recognize that the unharmful one is the more rational choice. Therefore, people would have a chance to choose the less harmful one. Even though the Rattlers chose that option as policy, they still saw it as more harmful to their interests than the harmful option. The study demonstrates why equality is bad or appears to be bad for many people of privileged social classes. Inequality and disparities persist because people fundamentally misunderstand the social consequences of their actions.
These Studies Still Provide a Possibility of a Positive Perspective for Equality
On the bright side, the researchers found that people from advantaged social groups are much more open to policies that reduce inequality within their social group. This could help explain why some countries with less racial diversity than the U.S., like Scandinavia, have been better at making equitable social policies.
What Can Policy Makers Do to Increase American Social Equality?
Brown and his co-authors say that American progressive policymakers could use the findings of these studies to promote national unity. On the other hand, conservative Republican lawmakers increasingly do the opposite. They put social groups against each other based on gender, race, religion, citizenship, and party affiliation.
What Do Authors Suggest to Better Promote Equality?
In conclusion, the researchers suggest,
“A critical next step concerns how the negative effects of zero-sum equality perceptions can be averted or how we can make progress toward equality despite these misperceptions.”
The question remains,
“How can advantaged groups be convinced to relinquish their relative advantages even as doing so inherently feels like a material concession?”
These studies do not present an optimistic picture for the future of American equality. However, Derek Brown advises policymakers that even though backlash is probably unavoidable, they can promote the change with the justification and motivation to create equality policies. Particularly when establishing a more equal and equitable society is on the table, the risk is still worth the reward (Brown et al., 2022).