By Emily Reynolds
There is ample evidence to suggest that inequality exists – in the UK alone, according to a study, the richest 1% own a quarter of the country’s wealth, and marginalized groups suffer from inequality in terms of work, education, living standards, health care and more.
However, not everyone pays attention to inequality. While some focus heavily on the causes and solutions, others believe that this is simply not important, or at least is an exaggeration. So what determines whether we pay attention to inequality?
A new study published in PNASargues that our ideological stance on equality may be key. Unsurprisingly, the team finds that social egalitarians are more likely to notice signs of inequality – but only if certain groups are affected.
In the first study, 2,204 participants were shown a series of photographs depicting urban scenes, half of which contained evidence of inequality, such as wealthy women receiving pedicures or luxury cars. Participants were then asked what they noticed in the pictures without mentioning any inequality in the prompt. Finally, they conducted a survey that measured their level of social egalitarianism – that is, how much they prioritize social equality – and how much they agreed with statements like “some groups of people need to stay in their place”.
People with low levels of social egalitarianism were significantly less likely to specifically mention inequality or the indicators associated with inequality. Social egalitarians, on the other hand, were more likely to mention inequality.
Since it was not clear whether those with low levels of social egalitarianism noticed but failed to mention inequality, or simply did not see it at all, the second study focused on identifying inequality. Participants looked at a series of pairs of images, one depicting a group of men and the other depicting a group of women, each accompanied by a set of money bags. In equal trials, men and women had the same number of money bags, while in unequal trials, men were shown more. Participants had to indicate whether the images showed an equal or an unequal distribution of resources. Those with high social egalitarianism were more accurate at the task than those with low levels, suggesting that anti-egalitarianists are less likely to notice inequality than they are less likely to mention.
Every study to date has examined attention to the inequality experienced by particularly marginalized groups such as women. In the next study, the team therefore examined whether social egalitarians are also better able to notice inequality compared to social ones advantageous Groups too. Participants watched a video of a discussion board that consisted of two men and two women. In one case the men spoke one and a half times longer than the women and in the other the women spoke one and a half times longer than the men. Participants were then asked whether men or women had spent more time speaking.
Social egalitarians were more likely to notice when men spoke more than women; But when women spoke more than men, there was no significant difference between egalitarian and anti-egalitarian participants.
In the final study, participants were privy to a hiring process in which the employer was biased either against minorities or against white applicants. And, as in previous studies, social egalitarians were significantly more likely to notice prejudice against racial minorities, but less likely to notice prejudice against white candidates. However, anti-egalitarians were more likely to notice the anti-white tendency.
The results suggest that social egalitarians take greater account of social inequality vis-à-vis marginalized groups and notice fewer disadvantages vis-à-vis less marginalized groups such as men or whites. (Another study, done earlier this year, also found that egalitarians were more likely to be prejudiced against older people at work, especially older white men).
It should be remembered, however, that inequalities towards marginalized groups are structural and far-reaching, affecting millions of people significantly every day. For disadvantaged groups like white men the disadvantages are smaller – speaking less than women in a panel, to use an example from the study, is hardly a serious social inequality. In this regard, it makes sense that those dealing with social inequality should turn their attention to the groups most affected by it.
That is not to say that there are no areas where men in particular are at a disadvantage – for example, suicide rates among men are extremely worrying. Further research could benefit from comparing more serious examples like this, on which social egalitarians may be more observant than on small topics like panel discussions.
– Ideology selectively shapes attention to inequality
Emily Reynolds is an associate at BPS Biomedarticles