Economic inequality in America is at historically high levels. Although most Americans indicate that they would prefer greater equality, redistributive policies aimed at reducing inequality are frequently unpopular. Traditional accounts posit that attitudes toward redistribution are driven by economic self-interest or ideological principles. From a social psychological perspective, however, we expected that subjective comparisons with other people may be a more relevant basis for self-interest than is material wealth. We hypothesized that participants would support redistribution more when they felt low than when they felt high in subjective status, even when actual resources and self-interest were held constant. Moreover, we predicted that people would legitimize these shifts in policy attitudes by appealing selectively to ideological principles concerning fairness. In four studies, we found correlational (Study 1) and experimental (Studies 2–4) evidence that subjective status motivates shifts in support for redistributive policies along with the ideological principles that justify them.
In Study 1, we measured subjective and objective SES and predicted that higher subjective SES would be associated with greater opposition to redistributive policies, independently of objective SES. In Study 2, we manipulated subjective SES, hypothesizing that participants induced to feel high status would be less supportive of redistribution and would endorse a more conservative ideology to justify that position than would participants induced to feel low status. In Study 3, we gained greater experimental control by creating an economic game in which players earned money and a portion of the profits of high earners were redistributed to low earners. We manipulated how well participants performed relative to other players, and we predicted that players who performed better would support less redistribution and would justify their preferences on the basis of ideological principles. In Study 4, we sought to replicate this finding and investigated whether the manipulation of subjective status led high-status participants to perceive other participants who disagreed with them as biased by self-interest. Together, these studies investigated whether subjective status may lead to political division.
[The results provide evidence] that perceptions of relative status can cause changes in political preferences. In Study 1, feeling higher in relative status was associated with lower support for redistribution. In Study 2, feeling higher in status caused reduced support for redistribution. In Study 3, we manipulated relative status in the context of an economic game and obtained similar results. Although participants could not profit from their recommendations, they recommended rule changes to reduce redistribution when they believed they had outperformed most other players. These changes were accompanied by shifts in construals of what counts as fair. Study 4 replicated these effects and showed that participants’ status affected their perceptions of bias in another player. High-status participants thought a player who recommended increased redistribution was more biased by self-interest than a player who recommended cutting redistribution. Together, these results suggest that subjective feelings of status can drive opinions toward redistribution, along with ideological views that justify those positions. An implication of the present work is that growing subjective perceptions of class differences may drive increased political polarization.