These Experiments Show Why Equality Is Bad or Looks Bad

Many modern societies have made great strides toward implementing social policies and practices that promote social equality. However, cultural values of equality spread more rapidly in some nations than in others.

Significant progress toward social equality, for example, has occurred relatively quickly in Western and Northern European countries. However, the social movement toward equality in the United States of America remains slow. The legislative initiatives face resistance from many voters and policymakers. They are often reluctant to support such equality policies. The intriguing question remains why so many people, both conservatives and often liberals, oppose such apparently fair proposals that can benefit all. Nevertheless, they mistakenly perceive the contexts of possible outcomes and resist social equality.

What the Preceding Studies Showed

In my previous post, I described some of the experiments conducted by N. Derek Brown and his colleagues (Brown et al., 2022), which discovered the hidden role that people’s “zero-sum” mindsets play in affecting their oppositional opinions, attitudes, and actions. Because of this, they believe that equality can lead them to lose their advantageous status. They agree with the idea of equality and perceive this as a positive change when equality increases within their own privileged social group. However, they oppose this idea of equality and perceive this as an undesirable shift when equality may increase between their own and other social groups.

Here Are the Other Experiments with Equality, Even More Convincing

The results of the following experiments were especially striking. Researchers made up a special “privileged” social group. They administered a personality test (a bogus test). Then, the researchers told participants that, based on their “test results”, they placed them in either the Eagles or the Rattlers group. In fact, the researchers assigned all of them to the Rattlers’ group. This group held a position of advantage over the Eagles, a fictitious social group. Then, the researchers proposed the Rattlers to reduce the disparity between them and the Eagles. They could take one of two actions:

  1. Either making both groups better off while helping the Eagles more (the win-win, equality-enhancing option)
  2. Or making everyone worse off while harming the Eagles more (the lose-lose, inequality-enhancing option).

Surprisingly and counterintuitively, the Rattlers perceived the win-win scenario to be marginally more detrimental to their interests than the lose-lose proposal. Therefore, they favored “the win-win” option less than “the lose-lose” option as a desired policy.

What Is Especially Striking About These Findings?

One can see that these findings are very convincing. Derek Brown and his colleagues (Brown et al., 2022) characterize these as “grim.” They commented that

“The misperception that equality is harmful is stubbornly persistent, resisting both reason and incentivization”

As Paul Piff, Professor of Psychological Science at the University of California, remarked,

People in general, and particularly elites, “tend to perceive inequality as something abstract and fairly distant. Inequality-mitigating policies are often framed in terms of policies to help the poor, which isn’t necessarily all that motivating for (some) folks. In a sense, then, combatting inequality rarely appeals to self-interest, which is a massive motivation for those advantaged in society to preserve the status quo insofar as it benefits them.”

The Important Conclusion of These Experiments

People tend to resist such equality policies, even when researchers address scarcity concerns and assure people that a more equitable policy will not affect their opportunities. Thus, this study demonstrates why equality is bad or looks bad to many privileged people. Inequality and disparities continue to occur because people fundamentally misunderstand their social consequences.