What Children’s Explanations of Inequality Reveal about the Belief that Society is Fair
By: Larisa Hussak
The wealth gap between the richest Americans and middle-income earners is the largest on record, and is projected to increase for the next 20 years. According to the AFL-CIO, the average American CEO earns a salary 331 times the size of the average worker’s salary. Inequality, it would appear, is everywhere.
And yet, as of 2011,[i] a majority of Americans believe that corporations are generally fair in balancing personal profit with public interest and that the federal government should not act to reduce the income and wealth gap.
The contrast between economic reality (namely, that most people are being shortchanged by the system) and the relatively positive attitudes toward the status quo raises an obvious question: Why do people seem to reject the idea that society is unjust? Why do they support a sociopolitical system that allows widespread, ever-growing inequality?
In a paper that will appear in JPSP, Andrei Cimpian and I answer this question by examining the thought processes that contribute to the counterintuitive tendency to uphold the status quo. Our claim was that this tendency has roots in explanation.
From a young age, people explain patterns and events in the world in a remarkably consistent manner. Instead of exhaustively considering every possible explanation, people often rely on the first thing that comes to mind (in other words, they explain heuristically). Previous work suggests that the information that comes to mind most quickly tends to be inherent information—facts or features that describe an entity itself rather than its context or its history.[ii],[iii] Thus, when people generate quick heuristic explanations of social patterns such as group-based inequalities, they might, more often than not, attribute the inequality to (presumed) inherent features of the people involved (e.g., men occupy more high-power jobs than women because men are more driven).
We hypothesized that this overreliance on inherent explanations is an important source of the widespread tendency to support unequal societies. After all, if people understand inequality as being directly caused by certain features of the groups involved (e.g., work ethic, intelligence), then it seems natural and legitimate that inequality should exist.
We contrasted our proposal with the currently dominant view on this phenomenon. This view suggests that people are motivated to support their sociopolitical systems.[iv] People often experience discomfort or anxiety when thinking about how unfair society is and how potentially undeserved their own position is (whether it is high or low). As a means of reducing these negative emotions, people may instead adopt the belief that the system is fair, and that they are where they belong.[v]
While there is a great deal of support for this motivated account, we argued that a motivation to reduce negative emotions is not necessary for system-supporting attitudes to emerge. Our own view suggests that such attitudes can occur simply as an unintended consequence of the explanation process. In order to differentiate between these two proposals, we focused our investigation on a participant population that, while particularly susceptible to inherent thinking, may not be so deeply anxious about their position in society: young children.
We tested whether 4- to 8-year-olds’ spontaneous ways of explaining lend support to the status quo in several studies using stimuli that described unfamiliar social disparities (e.g., on Planet Teeku, the Blarks have a lot more money than the Orps). We used unfamiliar groups and settings to reduce the likelihood that children would make connections to their own society, which might then trigger anxiety and a motivation to reduce it. For each unfamiliar disparity, children rated whether the disparity was due to inherent features of the groups (e.g., the Blarks are smarter) or to environmental or historical factors (e.g., a war long ago). This was a measure of how children explained the disparity. We also asked children to indicate how fair they perceived the disparity to be, and how much they liked each group. This was a measure of children’s tendency to defend the status quo.
In support of our prediction, children reliably preferred the inherent explanations. They thought that the Blarks were wealthier than the Orps, for example, because of something special about Blarks as group, and not because of their circumstances or history. Moreover, this preference for inherent explanations strongly predicted whether children saw the status quo as legitimate. The more strongly children agreed with the inherent explanations, the more likely they were to believe that all was fair on Planet Teeku.
Notably, when we asked children to generate their own explanations for these disparities (rather than having them evaluate explanations we generated), we found a similar preference for inherent explanations. Children as young as 4 explained inequities such as the one between the Blarks and the Orps in terms of inherent facts about the groups involved (e.g., “They work harder,” “Because the Blarks do their jobs a lot better, so they get a lot more money”). This suggests that the tendency to view inequality as fair has early roots in the basic processes by which people explain the world.
These explanatory processes influence sociopolitical reasoning throughout life. When adults reasoned about the same disparities we had presented to children, they displayed very similar biases. Just like children, adults believed that novel disparities were likely due to inherent features of the groups involved (as opposed to environmental or historical factors). In turn, this belief strongly predicted their intuitions that the disparities were fair and their preference for the high-status group. Importantly, these inequality-supporting attitudes came about in a context in which participants should have experienced little or no motivation to alleviate anxiety about their own place in society.
Although the take-home message may seem initially bleak—a pervasive explanatory bias leads us to inadvertently defend the status quo—there is, in fact, a silver lining. When we provided children with contextual explanations for status disparities, they were much less likely to see those disparities as fair. For example, simply telling children that the Blarks had more money than the Orps because they “live in a town with a lot better jobs” drastically reduced children’s tendency to believe that wealth gap was fair. This suggests that acknowledging the degree to which various extrinsic factors influence one’s position in society is important in reducing the near-automatic tendency to attribute status to inherent features. Finding ways, then, to overcome the bias to explain via inherent information may prove useful if we are to readjust our inequality-justifying attitudes in the face of ever-increasing wealth disparities.
Larisa Hussak is a PhD student in Developmental Psychology at the University of Illinois. Her research seeks to uncover the various cognitive mechanisms which underlie social and political behavior, and how they manifest across development. You can read more about her research here and reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[i] Kohut, A., & Dimock, M. (2013, May 1). Resilient American Values. Retrieved June 18, 2015.
[ii] Hussak, L. J., & Cimpian, A. (2014, November). Facts about inherent features are highly accessible in memory: Evidence for an inherence heuristic in explanation. Poster presented at the Annual Meeting of the Psychonomic Society, Long Beach, CA
[iii] McRae, K., de Sa, V. R., & Seidenberg, M. S. (1997). On the nature and scope of featural representations of word meaning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 126(2), 99-130.
[iv] Jost, J. T., & Banaji, M. R. (1994). The role of stereotyping in system-justification and the production of false consciousness. British Journal of Social Psychology, 33(1), 1-28.
[v] Jost, J. T., & Hunyady, O. (2002). The psychology of system justification and the palliative function of ideology. European Review of Social Psychology, 13, 111-153.