Modern societies in Europe and North America have made substantial progress in the social policies and practices of social equality. Nevertheless, further advancements in equality are still slow and meet with resistance from policymakers and voters. Some countries are more rapidly adopting the idea of equality than others.

For example, equality in the United States of America is still a long way, in many respects, from being good enough. Many privileged Americans, especially those with conservative values, are still reluctant to adopt the idea of equality.

Even though many people may say they want social equality, their thoughts and feelings about equality can be different. Why so? A new study conducted by N. Derek Brown and his colleagues (Brown et al., 2022) investigated how conservatism, belief in the status quo, preference for social hierarchies, and a “zero-sum” worldview influence the behavior of people aimed at gaining a social advantage.

What Are “Zero-sum” Beliefs?

The study has focused on the psychological function of the zero-sum mentality. This way of thinking makes people in privileged social groups think that policies that promote equality are bad for their own interests.

What is the psychology of the “zero-sum” worldview? People with a “zero-sum mentality” view many situations in social relations as zero-sum games. They believe that when one person gains, the other person loses. In other words, a person considers the other person’s gain as his or her own loss. Sometimes this happens in our lives. However, it is not necessarily true in other circumstances. People with this belief think that even simple things like buying food or a car have a winner and a loser. Because of these ideas, policymakers and voters may think that new policies will hurt them more than help others, even though the opposite is true.

What Did Studies Reveal?

Several studies with a total sample size of 4,197 participants showed that members of privileged groups mistakenly believe inequality to be beneficial. They think that equality can be detrimental to their access to resources. People of advantaged groups perceive equality as good only when it is increased within their social ingroup but not between social groups.

When resources and resource access are unlimited, misconceptions also endure. Even when policies that promote equality have positive effects on society as a whole, people still have wrong beliefs.

For example, a long-term study of American voters in 2020 found that this way of thinking about policy was a better predictor of how they would vote than their political beliefs or egalitarian beliefs.

Furthermore, the two final experiments revealed that advantaged people are more likely to vote for policies that increase inequality and harm their finances rather than policies that increase equality and help their finances. Despite any efforts to assist people in making better decisions, people continue to have these incorrect beliefs. So, it’s surprising that the mistaken belief that equality must be a “zero-sum game” may be why inequality still exists even though it has costs for society as a whole.

Victor Karandashev

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