Atlas Shrugs: Economic System Justification Predicts Muted Emotional Responses to Inequality

Atlas Shrugs: Economic System Justification Predicts Muted Emotional Responses to Inequality

Economic inequality is a feature of many, if not all, societies. Around the world, disparities of income and wealth are large and getting larger. Oxfam recently reported that world’s richest 1% possess more than twice as much as the wealth of 6.9 billion people. The United States is no exception to this global trend. In the U.S., the three richest people hold as much wealth as the bottom half of the nation’s population. As someone who has spent most of her life in big cities fraught with extreme manifestations of economic inequality (e.g., Tehran, Los Angeles, and New York), I have long been fascinated with how we think, feel, and behave in light of such vast disparities.

When I first started thinking about the project we report on in Nature Communications, I was a MA student at NYU taking two doctoral social psychology courses, Intergroup Inequality and Conflict (taught by coauthor Eric Knowles) and System Justification Theory (taught by coauthor John Jost). Discussions and readings in these classes were instrumental in my decision to examine, in my MA thesis, how legitimizing beliefs make people more tolerant of inequality. System Justification Theory sought to answer why people endorse beliefs that justify unequal social systems, even in cases when these systems are disadvantageous to themselves and their group. According to the theory, the belief in the fairness of an unequal status quo confers “palliative” benefits, as it buffers against the negative emotional effects of inequality. I became intrigued by the palliation thesis, and sought to investigate it in the economic domain as part of my MA thesis.

Meanwhile, my coauthors offered me a part-time job as a research assistant in their laboratories. Eric Knowles, along with two other NYU faculties, had recently purchased a psychophysiological equipment for measuring electrodermal and facial muscle activity. This provided an opportunity to include psychophysiological responses in my project—responses less prone to demand characteristics and social desirability biases than self-reports.  A then-recent work, criticized the idea, central to the palliation thesis, that system justification beliefs genuinely lower negative affect and enhance well-being. An alternative interpretation offered by the critics was that the so-called ideological happiness gap was fully attributable to the heightened tendency among rightists to present themselves as happier than their leftist peers. 

After months of reading about psychophysiological measurement and trouble-shooting scripts that would make the physiological equipment “talk” to the stimulus-presentation software, I launched my very first psychophysiological pilot study. In the year to follow I became a Ph.D. student with Eric Knowles and John Jost in the NYU Psychology Department, where I spent a great deal of time extending and replicating the findings that were initially observed in my MA thesis. I also had the pleasure of getting to know another of my coauthors, Ruthie Pliskin, who was then visiting the Department as John’s postdoc. With her involved, we investigated hypotheses involving exemplars of both great affluence and great poverty—and extended the findings to everyday contexts using smartphone-based experience-sampling methodology.

We think the present results help explain the inconsistency between humans' deep-seated aversion to distributive inequality on the one hand, and people’s tolerance of societal economic inequality on the other. We also believe that this study provides evidence that, upon encountering inequality, system-justifying beliefs “palliate” outrage—known to be important psychological motivators of collective action in the service of social change. This implies that the emotional consequences of adopting a critical viewpoint regarding inequality, though psychologically costly, may nonetheless be constructive in redressing it.

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