There is a funny paradox in politics. Many people who are successful or wealthy recognize the combination of talent and circumstances and plain luck that landed them where they are. Those who are unsuccessful or poor can recognize how things might have gone differently if their circumstances had been different.
Yet, the recognition that success and wealth do not happen purely on the basis of effort and merit does not change people’s attitudes toward social policy. While we recognize that there is substantial income inequality in the United States, few people endorse specific policies that would redistribute income and opportunity.
Why is that?
This question was explored in an interesting paper by Larisa Ussak and Andrei Cimpian in the November, 2015 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
They suggest that from an early age, people tend to explain the behavior of groups in terms of characteristics that those people have rather than in terms of the social forces that act on them. This focus on inherent characteristics rather than extrinsic forces leads people to accept that groups deserve to be in the social position they are in.
The first few studies in this paper looked at 8-year-olds and adults. They were given descriptions of groups of people from an alien planet. They were told that the groups had some kind of inequality (for example, one group might have a lot more money than the other). Then, they were given two explanations for that difference. One explanation focused on inherent characteristics (one group is smarter than the other). The second explanation focused on extrinsic factors (one group found a lot of gold). Participants rated how plausible they thought these explanations were. (Pilot studies showed that thought each explanation was equally plausible as a description of why one group might be wealthier than another.) They also rated whether they thought the situation on the planet was fair.
Both adults and 8-year-olds gave higher ratings to explanations based on inherent characteristics than to those based on external factors. Of interest, the more strongly that a person preferred the inherent explanation to the external one, the more that they thought the situation on the planet was fair.
Other studies in this series found a similar result with children as young as 5. In addition, studies found that children given the scenarios and asked to generate an explanation for the difference on their own tended to give explanations referring to inherent properties than to give explanations based on extrinsic factors.
Interestingly, these differences in explanations are observed when children think about groups, but not about individuals. When they are told about individuals from a planet who come from different groups and differ on some characteristic (like income), they are equally likely to give explanations based on inherent and extrinsic factors. So, the effect I have described seems to apply just to beliefs about groups.
One final study manipulated the type of explanation and looked at fairness. In this study, children were given either an inherent or an extrinsic explanation for a difference between groups on a planet. Children given an inherent explanation thought the difference between groups on the planet was more fair than children given an extrinsic explanation.
Putting all of this together, when children and adults look at groups of people, they often assume that group differences result from characteristics of group members rather than situational factors. As a result, they tend to think those group differences are fair. This suggests that one reason why people often fail to endorse public policies that might help to repair differences between groups is that they think that the differences between groups actually reflect aspects of those groups that are causing the inequality rather than situational factors that public policy might be able to fix.