Why Is Inequality in American Society So Persistent?

In the United States of America, equality is frequently declared to be a high cultural value. And there is undeniable evidence of the progress that American society has made in the social practice of equality during the 20th century.

In many respects, however, equality in the United States is still not consistent and is far from ideal. Despite their declared aspiration for social equality, Americans are diverse in their opinions and attitudes toward equality.

Psychological Discrepancies in Declared Values and Actions

The division between liberals and conservatives is quite apparent in this regard. While many progressive men and women see social equality as a highly desirable cultural value in American society, many conservative men and women may disagree with this view of social life.

Even though many people say they believe in the value of equality, both liberals and conservatives from socially advantaged groups may act in ways that protect their advantage.

Members of socially privileged groups often support the idea of equality, but they use their privilege to make policies that keep inequality in place. This trend keeps going even though inequality threatens the prosperity of both poor and rich groups. Many believe that this “cognitive mistake” is more common for conservatives than for liberals. However, it is not always correct. Both conservatives and liberals are prone to such “cognitive mistakes” and advantage-protecting behavior. Whether conservative or liberal, we tend to cling to our advantages at all costs.

Why Are Privileged Americans So Resistant to the Idea of Equality?

A recent study (Brown et al., 2022) looked at how conservatism, believing in the status quo, liking social hierarchies, and having a “zero-sum” view of the world affect behavior that tries to gain an advantage.

People with a zero-sum way of thinking perceive many situations as zero-sum games. This is the zero-sum attitude, which considers one person’s gain as another person’s loss. The study has especially looked at the psychological role of the zero-sum attitude. This attitude makes people from privileged social groups misperceive policies that promote equality as being detrimental to their own interests.

This zero-sum attitude makes negotiators think that their interests will always be at odds with those of their counterparts. They hold this belief even in situations when there are ways to make one or both parties better off without hurting either.

According to this view, people think that even everyday things like buying food or a car result in a position of winner and loser. Because of these beliefs, policymakers and voters may think that new policies will hurt them more than help others, even though the opposite is true.

The Studies Revealed What Causes American Inequality to Be So Persistent

A series of studies with a total sample size of 4,197 participants demonstrated that members of privileged groups incorrectly perceive equality to be detrimental to their access to resources and inequality to be advantageous. Only when equality is increased within their ingroup, as opposed to between groups, do members of advantaged groups perceive it as harmless. Misperceptions persist even when equality-enhancing policies offer broad benefits to society. Misperceptions also persist when resources and resource access are unlimited.

In particular, a longitudinal survey of U.S. voters in 2020 revealed that voters’ perceptions of harm are a stronger predictor of voting against actual equality-enhancing policies than voters’ political and egalitarian beliefs.

And the two final experiments showed that advantaged people are more likely to vote for policies that increase inequality that hurt their finances than for policies that increase equality that help their finances. Even after a change was made to help people make better decisions, people still have the wrong ideas. Surprisingly, this mistaken belief that equality has to be a zero-sum game could be why inequality still exists, even though it has costs for society that hurt everyone.