How the Inequality Around Us Shapes Our Perceptions of Morality
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Social Impact May 1, 2024

How the Inequality Around Us Shapes Our Perceptions of Morality

Lie, cheat, steal … no big deal? When we feel like we’re not in control of our lives, it’s easier to accept unethical behavior.

person jumps subway turnstile while two other riders cheer them on.

Michael Meier

Based on the research of

Christopher To

Dylan Wiwad

Maryam Kouchaki

Summary Across several studies, Maryam Kouchki and her coauthors find that high levels of economic inequality at both a national and local level makes people feel less in control of their lives, which in turn causes them to perceive immoral behavior as being more acceptable. The relationship between inequality and loss of control appears to be related to perceived levels of social mobility.

The concentration of wealth has been a defining trend of this century, with nearly half of countries around the world experiencing a growth in economic inequality since 2000.

The consequences are widespread. Larger gaps between the rich and the poor negatively affect life expectancy, infant mortality, and even happiness for those on the lower end of the economic spectrum. At the societal level, increased inequality hurts economic growth and is associated with higher financial and violent crimes.

And according to a new study, inequality even changes how we think about morality: when inequality is high, people are more accepting of unethical behavior.

“Inequality is closely linked to the perception of control,” says Maryam Kouchaki, a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg and a coauthor of the study. “Our study shows a causal impact of loss of control making you judge transgressions more leniently.”

The link between control and ethical behavior

The link between the control we feel over our lives and how we judge various ethical lapses has been known for decades. Previous research has shown, for instance, that those who lack a feeling of control develop less-extreme reactions to unethical behaviors like stealing, cheating, and lying.

But Kouchaki and her coauthors Christopher To of Rutgers University and former Kellogg postdoc Dylan Wiwad wondered how that finding might extend to inequality. Inequality decreases social mobility (both objectively and subjectively), and it creates feelings of relative deprivation—all of which could lead people to feel less control over their lives. So could high levels of inequality also lead to a society where immoral behavior is more accepted?

To find out, the researchers combined three huge datasets: a database that measured country-level inequality for 196 countries since 1960, a database on economic output and development for 182 countries since 1950, and a survey of more than 125,000 people collected between 1981 and 2014. That survey contained questions regarding participants’ feelings of control, whether they are trusting of other people, whether they view the world as competitive, and whether they believe people can only get rich at the expense of others. Survey participants were also asked to rate the justifiability of certain behaviors, like avoiding fare on public transit, cheating on taxes, and accepting a bribe.

“If someone thinks that society is unequal, but they have the ability to move up, then they still feel a sense of control. But if you can’t move up, you lose that sense of control.”

Maryam Kouchaki

By analyzing the combined dataset, the research team found that indeed those who lived in less-equal societies felt like they had less control and were more accepting of unethical behavior. (To the researchers’ surprise, there was no correlation between how competitive participants perceived the world to be and their feelings about unethical behavior—suggesting that inequality, not merely competitiveness, lent itself to this kind of justification.)

The research team then conducted some experiments themselves to expand on these results. In the first, more than 800 participants were shown images of ladders. Each ladder had 10 rungs, with each representing a decile of the population; rungs were then accompanied by differing quantities of money bags, representing the amount of wealth held by that decile.

Participants saw five different ladders that depicted different amounts of inequality in the society. (In the most unequal example, for instance, most of the money bags were at the top of the ladder). Participants then selected the ladder that they believed represented the wealth distribution in their local area and subsequently rated the acceptability of unethical behaviors like cheating on an exam, forging a friend’s signature, and illegally downloading software. They also rated their own sense of control, as well as how much they believe others have control over their unethical behaviors.

Once again, inequality—this time at the neighborhood level—mattered. The team found that people who rated their local area as more unequal were more likely to report a lower sense of control and a greater acceptability of unethical behavior.

When unethical behavior is more acceptable

But there are some downsides to relying on participants’ assessments of their own neighborhoods. So for another set of experiments, the team turned to a fictional society of Bimboola (a paradigm used in other, similar experiments).

In Bimboola, participants were told, citizens had different income tiers; the participants belonged in the middle tier. But some participants were informed that Bimboola was a highly unequal society, while others were told that inequality was low. Then, to reinforce these descriptions, participants were asked to select among essential items like homes or modes of transportation available in Bimboola. In the highly unequal society, they selected among items that varied widely in terms of expense or quality: both mansions and small houses, for instance, and both sports cars and junkers. In the more-equal society, the range of options was much narrower: think a slightly larger house versus a slightly smaller house.

Then participants answered several questions about their perceptions and expectations. As predicted, across these studies the team found that people in a highly unequal society—even a fictitious one—felt a lower sense of control, and were more accepting of unethical behaviors from others and themselves.

How inequality relates to social mobility

Finally, the team returned to the real world to explore the effect of social mobility—that is, the ability of a person to change their socioeconomic situation. They wondered: Could social mobility (or rather its absence) be contributing to this feeling of helplessness or lack of control?

In one study, for instance, participants estimated inequality in their neighborhood and rated their own feelings of control and perceptions about unethical behavior. This time, however, they also answered questions like, “There are many opportunities for me to move up in society.”

Researchers found that lower perceived social mobility among participants who reported living in more-unequal areas helped explain why inequality reduces one’s sense of control.

“Social mobility is relevant to what is happening here,” Kouchaki said. “If someone thinks that society is unequal, but they have the ability to move up, then they still feel a sense of control. But if you can’t move up, you lose that sense of control.”

How to make a more equal society

On a societal level, the research could help explain why crime rates may be higher in areas with significant economic inequality. It could also help explain the interesting finding that student cheating is higher in states that have higher levels of inequality.

“It goes beyond crime and cheating,” Kouchaki said. “The loss of a sense of control is incredibly important in well-being.”

At a basic level, policymakers looking to restore this sense of control in their communities can adopt programs that reduce economic inequality, including creating more affordable housing, raising the minimum wage, and creating a progressive tax system, Kouchaki said. They could also encourage training and educational programs that enhance people’s perception of social mobility.

“By making society more equal, we can help people feel more secure and stable in their lives, which would give them more of a sense of control,” Kouchaki said.

About the Writer

Emily Ayshford is a freelance writer in Chicago.

About the Research

To, Christopher, Wiwad, Dylan, and Maryam Kouchaki. 2023. "Economic Inequality Reduces Sense of Control and Increases the Acceptability of Self-Interested Unethical Behavior." Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

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