Why Do Some People See Inequality Where Others Don’t?
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Social Impact Jun 1, 2021

Why Do Some People See Inequality Where Others Don’t?

A new study helps explain societies’ deeply polarized views on bias and discrimination.

two people look through monoculars at money bags

Lisa Röper

Based on the research of

Hannah Waldfogel

Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington

Oliver Hauser

Arnold K. Ho

Nour Kteily

Nour Kteily was leaving a seminar one day when a colleague pointed out something he hadn’t noticed: female students who raised their hands weren’t getting called on by the guest speaker as often as male students.

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This observation got Kteily thinking. An associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, he’d been studying inequality for years, but his research usually involved asking people directly about their views on issues such as racism and classism.

But that’s rarely how we encounter inequality in the real world, he realized. What if, just as he failed to observe the gender bias in that seminar, some people are simply less inclined to notice inequality in the first place? Might this help explain why we hold such sharply divergent views about the levels of inequality in the world around us?

In a new study, Kteily and his coauthors—Kellogg PhD student Hannah B. Waldfogel, Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington of the London School of Economics, Oliver Hauser of the University of Exeter, and Arnold K. Ho of the University of Michigan—found exactly that: people who hold less socially egalitarian views are less aware of signs of inequality. Social egalitarians, by comparison, are much more alert to inequality—but only when it affects marginalized groups. When it affects dominant or majority group members, they are no more attuned than non-egalitarians.

“We tend to think about ourselves as neutral processors of the world, but the reality is that our belief systems shape what rises to the level of our attention in the first place.”

— Nour Kteily

In other words, Kteily says, people with contrasting beliefs about social hierarchy can look at the same situation and see different things. “The conclusions that we arrive at in terms of how we perceive the world are shaped in important ways by the beliefs that we hold,” he says. “We tend to think about ourselves as neutral processors of the world, but the reality is that our belief systems shape what rises to the level of our attention in the first place.”

The findings help shed light on why coworkers can vehemently disagree about issues of inequality within their own organization—where one employee sees discriminatory hiring practices, another may see nothing amiss. This, of course, is also a recipe for broader political arguments between coworkers that can distract them from the work at hand.

“Organizations are increasingly grappling with disagreements between employees about whether more needs to be done to address issues like discrimination, both inside and outside the workplace,” Kteily says. “These differences in perception can sometimes get quite heated, leading some companies like Coinbase and Basecamp to implement controversial policies banning discussions of politics at work. Our work points to one factor that explains how individuals can arrive at such different and deeply held conclusions about inequality at work.”

Who Perceives Inequality?

To examine this phenomenon, the researchers started by recruiting more than 2,000 online participants and asked them to look at photos of urban life. These scenes deliberately included signs of high and low social status, such as a luxury vehicle parked next to an unhoused person’s shopping cart. Then, participants were asked an open-ended question: What do you notice about the photo?

To assess participants’ beliefs about social egalitarianism, the researchers looked at their levels of social-dominance orientation, or SDO. People with high SDO are comfortable with social hierarchies, while people with low SDO are less comfortable with those hierarchies. For this experiment (and all the others in the study), participants answered a 16-question survey that measured their SDO.

When the researchers analyzed participants’ responses, they looked for both direct and indirect mentions of inequality. Simply noticing the luxury car or the cart—details that signal an economic divide—counted as an indirect mention; explicitly connecting those details to inequality was considered a direct mention.

Participants with high SDO—that is, people who hold less socially egalitarian views—were significantly less attentive to inequality than those low in SDO, the researchers found. SDO correlated negatively with direct mentions of inequality, but also indirect ones: a sign that high-SDO individuals simply aren’t as attuned to signs of unfairness in the world around them as low-SDO individuals.

Just Not Seeing It: The Gender Wage Gap

There was one possibility the researchers couldn’t rule out from the first study: maybe high-SDO individuals really did see the signs of inequality but just didn’t report seeing them.

They decided to investigate this possibility using a clever technique that required online participants to judge, across many rapid trials, whether two sets of objects were equal or unequal to one another. In their study, these objects were bags of money: on one side of the screen, the moneybags were paired with pictures of men, and on the other, they were paired with pictures of women. Half the time, participants saw the same number of moneybags on each side of the screen. The rest of the time, they saw more moneybags associated with the men—a representation of the gender wage gap.

For each trial, participants had to press the space bar when the distribution of moneybags was equal, but refrain from pressing any keys if they saw unequal distributions.

As in the first study, participants’ attentiveness to inequality varied with SDO: social egalitarians were more accurate in detecting unequal numbers of moneybags than participants with high SDO. (The researchers also looked at whether social egalitarians might experience more “false alarms”—that is, be more likely to report inequality when it wasn’t there—but did not find this to be true.)

How Perceptions Change with Different Types of Inequality

In the first two studies the researchers looked at inequality as we traditionally imagine it—socially dominant groups benefiting at the expense of socially marginalized groups. They’d seen that high-SDO individuals were less attuned to this kind of inequality, but what if they switched things around? Would high-SDO people perceive inequality when it affected the higher-status group? And would low-SDO people be equally alert when socially dominant group members were at a disadvantage?

As a test of this idea, they recruited nearly 1,500 participants who watched a short video of a panel discussion. Half the participants saw a video in which the men on the panel spoke 1.5 times more than the women; the other half saw the reverse.

Participants were told to pay close attention to the video because they would be answering a set of questions afterwards and could earn a $50 prize for the most accurate responses. (Participants were not told what aspect of the video to focus on, and the idea of inequality was not mentioned.)

After watching the video, the participants were shown seven pie charts and were asked to choose which one accurately represented the amount of speaking time that the men and women on the panel had.

In line with the earlier studies, SDO predicted how attentive participants were to inequality when it affected disadvantaged groups, in this case, women. Social egalitarians were more likely than people with high SDO to pick the correct pie chart when they had seen men speak more than women.

However, when participants saw women speaking more, there was no significant difference between how accurate high- and low-SDO participants were in picking the correct chart.

The researchers saw similar results in another study, which looked at perceptions of fairness in hiring practices when either white candidates or candidates of color were favored.

“The way to think about it,” Kteily explains, “is social egalitarians have an advantage in terms of their attunement when it’s disadvantaged groups being discriminated against. When it turns out to be advantaged groups, they’re not worse than people with high SDO—they’re just not any better.”

So, what does all this mean? In general, people with high SDO don’t pick up on inequality as readily as people with low SDO, and people with low SDO are most alert to a particular kind of inequality—the kind that affects marginalized groups.

Why We Don’t All See It the Same

For Kteily, it’s a reminder that our perceptions aren’t neutral: “We bring in ideological blinkers that can change both what stands out to us and also what doesn’t stand out to us.”

But if we know that our ideology is shaping our attention, we can learn to be more alert to things we don’t normally see—allowing for new common ground, or if nothing else, empathy. “Rather than digging in and getting really frustrated when someone doesn’t see things the same way that we do, we can recognize that everybody sees what their ideologies are inclining them to see in the first place.”

After all, “what might be really obvious to me might not have even been apparent to someone else simply because they weren’t intrinsically inclined to encode it.”

Featured Faculty

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

Susie Allen is a freelance writer in Chicago.

About the Research

Waldfogel, Hannah, Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington, Oliver Hauser, Arnold Ho, and Nour Kteily. 2021. “Ideology Selectively Shapes Attention to Inequality.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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