Why Wealthier People Think People Are Wealthier, and Why It Matters: From Social Sampling to Attitudes to Redistribution

Source: Rael J. Dawtry, Robbie M. Sutton, Chris G. Sibley, Psychological Science, Published online before print July 17, 2015
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From the press release:
Wealthy people may be likely to oppose redistribution of wealth because they have biased information about how wealthy most people actually are, according to new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The findings indicate that people use their own neighborhoods and communities as a gauge of how much wealth other people possess, leading wealthy people to perceive the broader population as being wealthier than it actually is. … The findings suggest that attitudes toward wealth distribution stem from more than just an economic motivation to protect one’s self-interest or a fiscally conservative political ideology – the information provided by our surrounding environment also plays an important role. The research, also co-authored by Chris Sibley of the University of Auckland, recruited over 600 US adults to complete an online survey in two studies. The participants were asked to estimate the distribution of annual household income for their social contacts and also for the entire US population — in one study, they estimated what percentage of people fell into each one of 11 income bands; in the other study, they estimated the average income of people within each income quintile. Then, the participants were asked how fair they thought income distribution in the US was and how satisfied they were with it. The participants also answered questions gauging their attitudes toward redistribution. The resulting statistical model revealed a link between participants’ personal household income and their attitudes toward redistribution that was driven by average social-circle income. Starting with household income, the researchers found evidence for a chain of associations: Household income was linked to estimated social-circle income, which was linked to estimated population income, which was linked to perceived fairness, which was finally linked to attitudes toward redistribution. This chain-like relationship remained even after the researchers took participants’ political orientation and perceived self-interest into account…..
The present studies provide evidence that social-sampling processes lead wealthier people to oppose redistribution policies. In samples of American Internet users, wealthier participants reported higher levels of wealth in their social circles (Studies 1a and 1b). This was associated, in turn, with estimates of higher mean wealth in the wider U.S. population, greater perceived fairness of the economic status quo, and opposition to redistribution policies. Furthermore, results from a large-scale, nationally representative New Zealand survey revealed that low levels of neighborhood-level socioeconomic deprivation—an objective index of wealth within participants’ social circles—mediated the relation between income and satisfaction with the economic status quo (Study 2). These findings held controlling for relevant variables, including political orientation and perceived self-interest. Social-structural inequalities appear to combine with social-sampling processes to shape the different political attitudes of wealthier and poorer people.