It's well known among economists that most people don't like income disparities, especially when they're on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. This is reflected in polls and scientific studies, but also just everyday common sense. Yet many of our societies suffer from a widening gap between the haves and have-nots. If we hate economic inequality so much, why do humans keep supporting institutions that concentrate wealth in a tiny percentage of the population? A new cross-cultural study led by economists working in China suggests one possible reason: people are not willing to redistribute wealth if they think it will upset the social hierarchy.
Zhejiang University business school professor Zhou Xinyue and his colleagues conducted a simple experiment using a game that allows players to redistribute income between two people. They describe the results in Nature Human Behavior. Players were shown pictures of two people and told that one has randomly been given a large amount of money and the other a small amount. Then players were asked whether they would be willing to allow the money to be redistributed under two basic conditions: one, if the redistribution leaves the "rich" person still richer than the other; and two, if the redistribution reverses the roles and leaves the "rich" person poorer than the other.
Zhou and colleagues did tests on subjects in China and continued their tests with Indian and Caucasian subjects via Mechanical Turk. They found that responses were surprisingly uniform: 76.87% of people were willing to redistribute money if the rich person remained slightly wealthier than the poor person, thus keeping "social ranking" intact. But only 44.8% of people were willing to redistribute the money if it meant reversing the fortunes of the "rich" and "poor" people.