As public fervor for equality climbs, new equality research demonstrates that an “egalitarian society” may not be what we want after all.
“There is no empirical evidence so far that people have any aversion to inequality itself.”
– Christina Starmans et. al., “Why people prefer unequal societies”
New research in Nature, conducted by a research team led by Christina Starmans, shows that the rapidly mounting body of equality research is flawed in one important way: when given the choice, we humans seem to prefer fairness over equality.
These surprising results challenge the findings of researchers Dan Ariely and Mike Norton which were summarized in a widely-read 2012 article by Ariely in The Atlantic titled, “Americans Want to Live in a Much More Equal Country (They Just Don’t Realize It)”. Ariely and Norton’s research showed that “all demographic groups—even those not usually associated with wealth redistribution such as Republicans and the wealthy—desired a more equal distribution of wealth than the status quo”.
The Ariely and Norton research is widely viewed as accurate and well-conducted but the Starmans research shows that the whole picture has not been fully represented by research. That is, that when fairness is represented—even in follow-up research by the same authors—both children and adults choose fairness over equality.
It’s a fine point, but here’s how it works. In one study, a preference for equality was proven insofar as children distributed rewards equally between two boys who had cleaned their rooms—and most did. However, when a rewarded boy put in demonstrably more effort, the observing children preferred an unequal distribution that proportionately rewarded the additional effort.
The Starmans teams’ new research also includes some interesting speculation on possible evolutionary causes. The authors write that:
In contrast with equality, fairness allows individuals with different levels of productivity to share the benefits of their collaboration proportionately. This focus on fairness is particularly important for humans (compared with even our closest evolutionary relatives), due to the critical importance of collaboration in human hunting and foraging.
And this has some powerful implications for widespread social adoption of an equality ideal:
To treat everyone equally would entail penalization of more productive individuals when they collaborate with less productive individuals relative to highly productive individuals.
The Starmans team concludes by saying that there may in fact be a preference for equal outcomes, but that additional experimentation would have to conducted that carefully isolates the inequality preference from fairness and other related considerations.
For those of us interested in the mechanics of effective and lasting social progress, the Starmans findings are important to understand. The human mind as it turns out may indeed be wired for a certain type of structural social equality, but equality may yet prove to be lacking as a guiding light or highest ideal.
Furthermore—and this is purely conjecture—it would seem, based on Marxist efforts at achieving equality of outcome in the 20th century, that such a result can only be forced. The results of the Starmans study may point us to exactly why: fairness has an air of rightness about it, and a diminishingly small sample of us may actually want to live in a truly equal society.
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Featured image was pulled from the King Arthur Flour website. Where else?
Norton, M. I. & Ariely, D. Building a better America—one wealth quintile at a time. Perspect. Psychol. Sci. 6, 9–12 (2011).
Shaw, A. & Olson, K. R. Children discard a resource to avoid inequity. J. Exp. Psychol. Gen. 141, 382–395 (2012).
Baumard, N., Mascaro, O. & Chevallier, C. Preschoolers are able to take merit into account when distributing goods. Dev. Psychol. 48, 492–498 (2012).