Egalitarians Are Better At Detecting Inequality — But Only When It Affects Socially Disadvantaged Groups

By Emily Reynolds

There is ample evidence that inequality exists — in the UK alone, one study suggested, the richest 1% have a quarter of the country’s wealth, and marginalised groups experience inequality in relation to work, education, living standards, healthcare and more.

However, not everyone is attentive to inequality. While some are keenly focused on its causes and its solutions, others believe it’s simply not important, or at the very least that it’s exaggerated. So what determines whether we pay attention to inequality?

A new study, published in PNAS, argues that our ideological stance on equality may be key. Unsurprisingly, the team finds that social egalitarians were more likely to notice signs of inequality — but only when it affected certain groups.

In the first study, 2,204 participants were shown a series of photographs depicting urban scenes, half of which contained indications of inequality such as wealthy women receiving pedicures or luxury cars. Participants were then asked what they had noticed in the images, with no mention of inequality in the prompt. Finally, they completed a survey that measured their levels of social egalitarianism — that is, how much they prioritise social equality — indicating how much they agreed with statements like “Some groups of people must be kept in their place”. 

Those with low levels of social egalitarianism were significantly less likely to specifically mention inequality or to mention the inequality-related indicators. Social egalitarians, on the other hand, were more likely to mention inequality.

As it was not clear whether those with low levels of social egalitarianism were noticing but failing to mention inequality or simply not seeing it at all, the second study focused on the detection of inequality. Participants viewed a series of pairs of images, one depicting a group of men and the other a group of women, each accompanied by a set of money bags. In equal trials, men and women had the same number of money bags, while in unequal trials the men were shown with more. Participants had to indicate whether the images depicted equal or unequal distribution of resources. Those high in social egalitarianism were more accurate at the task than those with low levels, suggesting that anti-egalitarians are less likely to notice inequality as well as less likely to mention it.

Each study so far had explored attention to inequality experienced by particularly marginalised groups such as women. So, in the next study, the team looked at whether social egalitarians were also better at noticing inequality against socially advantaged groups, too. Participants watched a video of a discussion panel, made up of two men and two women. In one condition, the men spoke one and a half times longer than the women, and in the other the women spoke one and a half times longer than the men. Participants were then asked whether men or women had spent more time speaking.

Social egalitarians were more likely to accurately notice when men spoke more than women; but when women spoke more than men, there was no significant difference between egalitarian and anti-egalitarian participants.

In the final study, participants were privy to a hiring process in which the employer was either biased against minorities or against white applicants. And as in the previous studies, social egalitarians were significantly more likely to notice bias against racial minorities, but less likely to notice bias against white candidates. Anti-egalitarians, however, were more likely to notice the anti-white bias.

So, the results suggest, social egalitarians are more attentive to social inequality against marginalised groups, and less likely to notice disadvantages against less marginalised groups like men or white people. (Another study conducted earlier this year similarly found that egalitarians were more likely to show prejudice against older people at work, particularly older white men).

However, it’s worth remembering that inequalities against marginalised groups are structural and wide-ranging, significantly affecting millions of people on an everyday basis. For more advantaged groups, like white men, disadvantages are on a smaller scale — speaking less than women on a panel, to use an example from the study, is hardly a serious social inequality. In this respect, it makes sense that those concerned with social inequality focus their attention on those groups who are most affected by it.

That’s not to say that there aren’t areas in which men in particular are disadvantaged — male suicide rates, for example, are extremely concerning. Further research could benefit from comparing more serious examples like this, where social egalitarians may be more attentive, rather than with small-scale issues like panel discussions.

Ideology selectively shapes attention to inequality

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest