Although rising economic inequality in the United States has alarmed many, research across the social sciences repeatedly concludes that Americans are largely unconcerned about it. We argue that this conclusion may be premature. Here, we present the results of three experiments that test a different perspective—the opportunity model of beliefs about inequality. Tempering the conclusions of past work, the findings suggest that perceptions of rising economic inequality spark skepticism about the existence of economic opportunity in society that, in turn, may motivate support for equity-enhancing policies. Hence, this work calls for new theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of rising economic inequality, especially those that bridge disciplinary boundaries, as well as the largely separate experimental and correlational literAbstract
Economic inequality has been on the rise in the United States since the 1980s and by some measures stands at levels not seen since before the Great Depression. Although the strikingly high and rising level of economic inequality in the nation has alarmed scholars, pundits, and elected officials alike, research across the social sciences repeatedly concludes that Americans are largely unconcerned about it. Considerable research has documented, for instance, the important role of psychological processes, such as system justification and American Dream ideology, in engendering Americans’ relative insensitivity to economic inequality. The present work offers, and reports experimental tests of, a different perspective—the opportunity model of beliefs about economic inequality. Specifically, two convenience samples (study 1, n = 480; and study 2, n = 1,305) and one representative sample (study 3, n = 1,501) of American adults were exposed to information about rising economic inequality in the United States (or control information) and then asked about their beliefs regarding the roles of structural (e.g., being born wealthy) and individual (e.g., hard work) factors in getting ahead in society (i.e., opportunity beliefs). They then responded to policy questions regarding the roles of business and government actors in reducing economic inequality. Rather than revealing insensitivity to rising inequality, the results suggest that rising economic inequality in contemporary society can spark skepticism about the existence of economic opportunity in society that, in turn, may motivate support for policies designed to redress economic inequality.
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