Newswise – We react less negatively to extreme manifestations of economic disparity, such as homelessness, if we believe the economic system is fair and legitimate, and these differences in responsiveness are even detectable at the physiological level, notes a team of psychology researchers. The research, which appears in the newspaper Nature Communication, offers new insights into why we react differently to inequality.
âResearch has shown that people generally have an aversion to unequal distributions of resources, an example may be someone we see sleeping on a grid or not having access to basic necessities, health care and support. ‘education,’ explains Shahrzad Goudarzi, head of the newspaper. author and doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology, New York University. âYet many people pay little attention or are not embarrassed by growing economic disparities – answers some may have difficulty understanding. This research begins to explain such differences: The beliefs that legitimize and justify the economic system decrease our deep aversion to inequality, protecting us from negative emotions in response to it.
Previous research has shown that humans, and some other primates, have developed an evolutionary aversion to inequality in the distribution of goods and resources. For example, children as young as six have been found to refuse articles if it means having more than their peers. Nonetheless, public opinion data suggests that a large percentage of Americans are not bothered by economic inequality. For example, a 2018 Gallup poll show that a third of Americans are satisfied with the current distribution of income and wealth. Such acceptance, despite general preferences for greater equality, raises the question of how people deal with such contradictions.
To remedy this, scientists from Nature Communication study conducted a series of six experiments. Two of these (studies 1 and 2) were carried out using participants from Amazon “Mechanical Turk” and Prolific Academic, tools in which individuals are paid for performing small tasks and which are frequently used. used in the conduct of behavioral science studies. Four others (studies 3 to 6) involved college undergraduates.
In Studies 1 and 2, participants were asked for their views on the US economic system by recording their agreement with statements such as: “Economic positions are a legitimate reflection of people’s achievements” and “If people work hard, they almost always get what they want. âA week later, some viewed a video in which a homeless person interviewed described their situation, recounting their routines and struggles. Separate control groups viewed banal videos, illustrating interviews on fishing and coffee production.
Those who believed the U.S. economic system to be fair, legitimate and justified (“justifiers of the system”), compared to those who did not, said they experienced fewer negative emotions after watching videos depicting homelessness.
Studies 3-5 replicated these steps, then added a new component: participants’ physiological responses were measured by measuring their skin conductance levels and subtle facial muscle movements. This method allows for a more in-depth analysis of our responses because it captures involuntary reactions to stimuli – negative arousal and emotional distress. Here, justifiers of the economic system showed relatively low levels of negative affects and arousal while observing homeless people. In contrast, the rationale for the economic system was not associated with emotional reactions to the monitoring videos.
Study 6 went further: it aimed to capture emotions in the context of people’s daily lives. In this study, undergraduates received four text messages a day for nine consecutive days, prompting them to take a short survey using their smartphones. Two of the daily surveys aimed to measure reactions to inequality, one survey asking participants to indicate whether they had met someone they considered very poor and another whether they had met someone very rich by relation to themselves; the order of these surveys was randomized over several days. Whether or not participants reported such a meeting, they were asked about their feelings, either in light of the meeting (if a meeting was reported) or within the previous two hours (if no meeting was reported. ).
Consistent with previous studies, those identified as âsystem justifiersâ reported fewer negative emotions after their daily exposure to the rich and poor than those who were more critical of the existing economic system.
“These results provide the strongest evidence to date that the beliefs underlying the system decrease aversion to inequality in economic contexts,” observes Eric Knowles, associate professor of psychology at NYU and one of the co-authors. of the article.
The other co-authors of the study were John Jost, professor of psychology, politics and data science at NYU, and Ruthie Pliskin, assistant professor of psychology at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
The research was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation (BCS â 1729295, BCS â 1627691).
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