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May 18, 2022

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Privileged people misjudge effects of pro-equality policies on them

Large houses by a lake in Orlando, Florida

Edwin Remsberg/Getty Images

People from privileged groups may misperceive equality-boosting policies as harmful to them, even if they would actually benefit.

Previous studies have found that advantaged people often don’t support interventions that redistribute their resources to others who are disadvantaged, in zero-sum scenarios where there are limited resources.

Now, researchers have explored the degree to which people from advantaged groups think equality-promoting policies would harm their access to resources, in scenarios where the strategies would benefit or have no effect on their group, while bolstering the resources of a disadvantaged group.

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Derek Brown at the University of California, Berkeley, conducted a series of studies involving a total of more than 4000 volunteers.

In one study, they presented white people who weren’t Hispanic with policies that didn’t affect their own advantaged group and benefited a disadvantaged group that they did not belong to – people with disabilities, those who had committed a crime in the past, members of a racial minority group or women. Importantly, the team told participants that resources – in the form of jobs or money – were unlimited.

For example, one policy would direct more money to mortgage loans for Latino homebuyers without limiting how many mortgage loans were available for white people.

Participants were then asked to rank how they thought the policy would affect the advantaged group’s access to resources on a scale from greatly harmful to greatly beneficial. The team found that, on average, advantaged people perceived equality-boosting policies as harmful to their resource access, even though they were told that resources were boundless.

“We find that advantaged members misperceived these policies as a sacrifice to their group, even when that’s not the case,” says Brown.

The researchers then asked participants to consider a win-win scenario involving equality-promoting policies that benefited both the disadvantaged and advantaged groups – but the latter to a lesser extent. People were also asked to consider inequality-enhancing policies that would reduce access to resources for everyone.

In this case, the team found that most advantaged people thought equality-enhancing policies with benefits for all would be more harmful to them than inequality-enhancing polices that came at a cost to the advantaged group.

“We thought, maybe if we make a win-win or mutual-benefit situation, then maybe [advantaged people] will see the equality-enhancing policies as helpful. But they didn’t,” says Brown.

Advantaged people tended to see equality-promoting policies as less harmful to their resource access if they benefitted people who were disadvantaged but who shared an identity with them. For example, white participants generally thought they would lose less from a policy that directed relatively more money to disadvantaged white people, compared with a policy that gave disadvantaged Black people the same benefits.

“Advantaged people saw these policies more accurately when we made salient a disparity within their own group versus one that occurs between different groups,” says Brown. “This suggests that when we identify ourselves with a certain group, and see a disparity occurring within our group, we are motivated to reduce that in-group disparity.”

In another experiment, the researchers asked a diverse group of participants to take a bogus personality test and then assigned them into a made-up advantaged group. Again, they found that people tended to misperceive equality-promoting policies as harmful even when they benefitted the advantaged group. This suggests that anyone at an advantage – for any reason – may misperceive beneficial equality-boosting policies as harmful.

“It’s pretty troubling what we found. [But] I think people have the capacity to believe in these policies. And I think there’s a way forward, we just have to find it,” says Brown.

Education could help to tackle inequalities by making people more aware of this tendency to misperceive equality-boosting policies that would actually benefit them, says Brown.

“It was an ambitious series of studies that did an excellent job of ruling out alternative explanations,” says Dan Meegan at the University of Guelph, Canada. “The work paints a pretty dark picture for those trying to convince people to support policies designed to reduce intergroup inequality. The authors gave their participants every opportunity to see that helping disadvantaged groups need not come at the expense of advantaged groups, to no avail.”

“In terms of reliability and importance, this research checks all the boxes. What I would say is the fact that [the findings] aren’t surprising is alarming to me,” says Shai Davidai at Columbia University in New York.

Further work will need to establish if the same behaviour applies to people outside the US, although Brown and Davidai think it probably will.

“My own and others’ work has already shown that zero-sum beliefs replicate in many cultural contexts and across different nations, and I would not be surprised if this is the case for the current work as well,” says Davidai.

Journal reference: Science Advances, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abm2385

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