Political beliefs shape whether we notice social inequality, study finds

Research found that egalitarians pay greater attention to inequality but apply it selectively

Those on the left of the political spectrum in the UK and US are more likely to notice social inequality, but only when it affects typically disadvantaged groups.

This is according to new peer-reviewed research from the University of Exeter Business School, the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), Northwestern University and the University of Michigan, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Disagreement about whether some groups face more unequal outcomes and treatment than others is common in public discussions: for example, in debates about the balance between men and women on news programmes or whether a firm’s recruitment practices adversely affect racial minorities.

The study seeks to analyse where these different perceptions come from, considering two relevant groups across ideological lines: ‘egalitarians’, those who believe that groups in society should be equal; and ‘anti-egalitarians’, who are more tolerant of inequality between groups.

The researchers found that these ideological beliefs influence whether people detect disparities between groups in a range of settings.

In one experiment, participants from the UK and US were shown photographs of everyday urban scenes and asked to report what they noticed.

In images that contained cues related to inequality – in which, for example, a luxury car and a homeless person were depicted in the same scene – egalitarians were more likely to remark on inequalities in the image, while anti-egalitarians were more likely to remark on other aspects.

In other experiments the researchers directly manipulated whether inequality harmed typically advantaged or disadvantaged groups: participants were asked to view the CVs of applicants to an organisation that had just completed their recruitment process and then learned whether the applicants got the job.

The researchers found that when there was bias against racial minorities, egalitarians were more likely to notice it than anti-egalitarians.

But when the bias was against white applicants, egalitarians were no more or less likely to notice it than anti-egalitarians.

Professor Oliver Hauser, Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Exeter Business School and co-author of the study, said: “While inequality remains a topic of great interest to people across political ideologies, not everyone agrees that inequality is a big problem. We show that this is because people with different political ideologies simply “notice” inequality differently – in fact, not everyone sees the same picture even when they are looking at, literally, the same picture.”

Existing research suggests people process information in ways that are consistent with their pre-existing beliefs, but this research indicates that pre-existing beliefs about the desirability of group equality shape what people notice around them in the first place.

“Our results suggest that egalitarians are not more likely than anti-egalitarians to notice all forms of inequality, but rather that egalitarians’ heightened attention to inequality applies selectively to instances where inequality harms typically disadvantaged groups,” said Hannah Waldfogel, a doctoral student at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and lead author of the study.

Ideology Selectively Shapes Attention to Equality” is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

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