This research explains why equality in America is so elusive – Mother Jones

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In an old man Eastern European fairy tale, God appears before an impoverished peasant named Vladimir and offers to grant a wish: whatever he wants. Vladimir is thrilled. But then God adds a warning: whatever he gives to Vladimir, he will also give to Ivan, Vladimir’s neighbor, twice. Vladimir thinks about it for a while and then replies: “Okay, God, I want you to tear out my eye.”

We appreciate this punchline because it says something true about human behavior. Members of an advantaged group often resist helping a disadvantaged group even though the advantaged group will also benefit. Social scientists call this “Vladimir’s choice”. Even as we claim advocate greater equalitywe are stuck in protecting our own relative advantage, even if it costs us in absolute terms.

In The sum of us, author Heather McGhee recalls how, when American white communities were forced to integrate public swimming pools and parks, which flourished in the 1940s and 1950s, they often chose to destroy spaces rather than share them with their black neighbors. “This is what happened in Montgomery, Alabama,” McGhee said vox last year “In fact, they drained the pool, filled it with dirt, and shut down Oak Park. They sold out the zoo’s animals, shut down all the parks and recreation department in the city, and kept it closed for a while. It was nearly 1970 before the good people of Montgomery could enjoy a public park again, all because of racism. ”

White Americans, and men in particular, also tend to view efforts to reduce prejudice against black men and women as detrimental to They. We have seen a lot of this lately amidst all the conservative backlash against diversity and racial justice efforts.

But prejudice is not the only ingredient in our Vladimir’s choices. The researchers separately associated such advantage-protecting behavior with conservatism, ideological support for the status quo, a preference for social hierarchies, and a zero-sum worldview. Liberals are also susceptible to this “cognitive error,” explains Derek Brown, a UC Berkeley doctoral student who is co-author a new interesting document on the subject with assistant professor Drew Jacoby-Senghor at the Haas School of Business in Berkeley and Columbia doctoral student Isaac Raymundo.

The research, published Friday in the peer-reviewed journal Science advanceslooks in particular at the zero-sum attitude of advantaged groups, whose members, even taking these other factors into account, tend to misperceive policies that enhance equality as detrimental to their self-interest.

This “leads negotiators to see their interests as inevitably opposed to those of their counterpart, even when opportunities exist to improve the well-being of one or both sides without harming either side,” they write. “People even interpret everyday transactions, such as buying food or buying a car, as resulting in a winner and a loser. These beliefs can lead policymakers and voters to perceive that the new policies they will negatively affect them more than it will benefit others, even when the opposite is true. “

In the first set of experiments, participants from advantaged groups (such as white Americans, able-bodied people, men, and non-criminals) were shown proposals that would improve resources (better jobs and wages, for example, or greater access to mortgages for employment). casa) available to members of a less advantaged group (such as Latin Americans, people with disabilities, women and people convicted of crimes) without taking resources away from the advantaged group.

In some cases, participants were told advantageous , that resources were not limited and that proposals to strengthen equality would not harm their own prospects. Even so, these participants, on average, viewed the proposals as harmful.

In an experiment conducted before the November 2020 election, researchers interviewed white (non-Hispanic) and registered California voters from East and South Asia about Proposition 16, an election initiative that would repeal an existing ban on affirmative action in the public. employment, procurement, and university admissions. These groups are advantageous in the sense that they are over-represented, relative to the population, among public college students and public sector employees.

It is questionable whether activating affirmative action programs would have significantly damaged their chances of securing public sector jobs, contracts and university posts for their families, but this was the perception, even though two-thirds of the group did. they self-identified as liberals. The more threatening they perceived affirmative action as their personal interest, the more likely they were to vote against Prop. 16, which was ultimately defeated, by 57% to 43%.

In a couple of experiments whose results he found “particularly surprising,” Brown said in an email, the researchers created an arbitrary “advantageous” class. Participants were told they would be assigned to one of two groups, the Eagles or the Rattlers, based on a (fake) personality test. In fact, all were assigned to the Rattlers, who held an advantage over the (fictional) Eagles.

The Rattlers were then presented with proposals that would narrow the gap between them and the Eagles by 1) improving both groups but helping the Eagles more (the win-win option, which improves equality) or 2) making everyone worse, but harming the Eagles more (the losing-losing option, which improves inequality). Counterintuitively, the Rattlers perceived the win-win scenario as slightly more harmful their interests over the losing proposition and were not inclined to favor it as a policy over the losing proposition.

The results are “really convincing”, psychologist Paolo Pifan assistant professor at UC Irvine studying how people’s relative wealth and status affect their attitudes and behaviors, he says in an email. People in general, and elites in particular, “tend to perceive inequality as something abstract and quite distant,” she says. “Inequality mitigation policies are often framed in terms of policies to help the poor, which is not necessarily motivating for (some) people. In a sense, therefore, fighting inequality rarely appeals to self-interest, which is a huge motivation for those who are advantaged in society to preserve the status quo to the extent that they benefit from it. “

Brown and his co-authors use the word “sad” to characterize their findings. “The misperception that equality is harmful is stubbornly persistent, resisting both reason and incentive,” they write, even when concerns about scarcity are addressed and people are told that fairer policy will not affect their opportunities. . “This emerging body of work suggests that inequality can last mainly because people fundamentally misunderstand the reality of the inequalities that weigh down their society.”

In a second Eagles-Rattlers experiment, Rattlers were presented with two options for reducing inequality between groups. In the “harmless” option, the Eagles received more resources with no change for the Rattlers, while the “harmful” option meant that the Rattlers received less, with no change for the Eagles. The researchers wanted to see if, when presented with side-by-side options, people would recognize that harmless was the more rational choice. And while the Rattlers did indeed choose that option as a matter of politics, they still perceived it as significantly more damaging to their interests than the damaging option.

On a positive note, the researchers found that members of advantaged groups are much more inclined to policies that reduce inequality. within their group, which could help explain why some countries that are more racially homogeneous than the United States, such as the Scandinavian nations, have been more successful in implementing equitable social policies.

American politicians could benefit, Brown and his co-authors suggest, by promoting national unity. Of course, Republican lawmakers have increasingly done the exact opposite, pitting groups against each other by gender, ethnicity, religion, citizenship and party affiliation, with no end in sight.

Like most documents, this ends with a version of “more research is needed”. And in this case the preferred focus seems pretty obvious. “A critical next step,” the researchers write, “is how to avoid the negative effects of zero-sum perceptions of equality or how we can make progress towards equality despite these misperceptions.” Researchers also, they write, need to gain a better understanding of “how advantaged groups can be persuaded to give up their relative advantages even if doing so seems inherently akin to a material concession.”

“This series of studies certainly doesn’t paint an optimistic picture,” admits Brown in his email. “I would like to advise policy makers that while backlash is likely inevitable, change itself must be the justification and motivation for creating equality policies. The risk is worth the reward, especially when the creation of a fairer and more equitable society is at stake. ”