Why Do You See the World as More Fair Than I Do?
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Organizations Leadership Jun 7, 2016

Why Do You See the World as More Fair Than I Do?

The amount of racism or clas­sism you per­ceive like­ly depends on how much you favor social hierarchies.

People's views on inequality depend on whether they support social hierarchies.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research of

Nour Kteily

Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington

Arnold K. Ho

Imag­ine a com­pa­ny striv­ing to ensure ade­quate gen­der rep­re­sen­ta­tion among its staff. Man­agers must decide how to pur­sue a bal­anced ratio of men and women. No doubt there will be dis­agree­ments about which fac­tors are dri­ving the dis­par­i­ty and how to address it.

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But new research from the Kel­logg School sug­gests that a sub­tler under­ly­ing prob­lem may make such thorny issues even hard­er to resolve: peo­ple who sup­port egal­i­tar­i­an­ism tend to see more inequal­i­ty, while those who pre­fer hier­ar­chi­cal sys­tems see less inequal­i­ty. In oth­er words, not only would these two groups like­ly clash over caus­es and solu­tions, but they may not even agree on the sever­i­ty of the prob­lem — in this case, just how skewed the organization’s gen­der ratio actu­al­ly is.

These dif­fer­ences are like­ly com­pound­ing strug­gles to address equal­i­ty-relat­ed issues, says Nour Kteily, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at the Kel­logg School of Management.

There’s already vari­a­tion in people’s beliefs about the desir­abil­i­ty of hier­ar­chy” and their expla­na­tions for why inequal­i­ty exists, he notes. It’s an even worse prob­lem if peo­ple are start­ing from a dif­fer­ent base­line about how much inequal­i­ty there actu­al­ly is.”

There’s bias across the spec­trum. This is some­thing every­one needs to consider.”

Kteily’s research found this pat­tern holds across sev­er­al social con­texts, such as inequal­i­ty in gen­der, race, and class — and even when par­tic­i­pants were pre­sent­ed with fic­tion­al group con­flicts or abstract images that sim­ply evoked unequal dis­tri­b­u­tion of pow­er and resources.

Since dis­tort­ed per­cep­tions were seen among both egal­i­tar­i­ans and anti-egal­i­tar­i­ans, the blame can­not be placed sole­ly on one side. There’s bias across the spec­trum,” he says. This is some­thing every­one needs to consider.”

The Pow­er Gap

Researchers have pre­vi­ous­ly exam­ined how peo­ple ratio­nal­ize social inequal­i­ty. These stud­ies sug­gest, for exam­ple, that peo­ple who pre­fer social hier­ar­chies also tend to sup­port ide­olo­gies that bol­ster the legit­i­ma­cy of the more pow­er­ful group’s posi­tion. Think of the jus­ti­fi­ca­tions built into racism, nation­al­ism, or even kar­ma, which attrib­ut­es someone’s lot in life to his or her pre­vi­ous actions. How­ev­er, lit­tle work has been done to explore whether people’s beliefs about hier­ar­chy affect how much inequal­i­ty they per­ceive in the first place.

Kteily and his col­lab­o­ra­tors, Jen­nifer Shee­hy-Skeff­in­g­ton at the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics and Polit­i­cal Sci­ence and Arnold Ho at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan, con­duct­ed a series of stud­ies to inves­ti­gate. For each exper­i­ment, the team recruit­ed peo­ple online and asked them ques­tions to assess their social dom­i­nance ori­en­ta­tion” (SDO), a mea­sure of how much they favor social hier­ar­chy. A per­son with high SDO would agree that it is accept­able for some groups to dom­i­nate oth­ers and would reject the idea that every group should have equal oppor­tu­ni­ties; a per­son with low SDO would believe the opposite.

In the first study of 649 par­tic­i­pants, the researchers, after assess­ing SDO lev­els, asked each per­son to rate on a scale of 1 to 7 how much pow­er var­i­ous groups in soci­ety pos­sessed: white Amer­i­cans, black Amer­i­cans, men, women, and peo­ple born into rich, mid­dle-class, or poor fam­i­lies. The team then cal­cu­lat­ed the gaps between groups to deter­mine, for exam­ple, par­tic­i­pants’ per­cep­tions of the pow­er dis­par­i­ty between men and women.

Egal­i­tar­i­ans tend­ed to report larg­er dis­crep­an­cies in pow­er, the team found. Par­tic­i­pants who scored in the low­est quar­tile on SDO — that is, those who were the most egal­i­tar­i­an — esti­mat­ed that dom­i­nant groups— for exam­ple, men, white Amer­i­cans, and the rich — were an aver­age of 2.67 points more pow­er­ful than weak­er groups — for exam­ple, women, black Amer­i­cans, and the poor. Mean­while, peo­ple who scored in the high­est quar­tile on SDO report­ed an aver­age pow­er gap of only 1.05 points.

Real vs. Fic­tion­al Worlds

But the study raised a ques­tion: Was this pat­tern occur­ring sim­ply because egal­i­tar­i­ans were exposed to more inequal­i­ty, while peo­ple who believe in hier­ar­chy did not see many exam­ples of it in their dai­ly lives? A per­son with low SDO might be a social work­er who fre­quent­ly saw injus­tices suf­fered by minori­ties. Mean­while, a high-SDO indi­vid­ual could be a cor­po­rate exec­u­tive who did not encounter such sit­u­a­tions frequently.

If that were the case, the egal­i­tar­i­ans and anti-egal­i­tar­i­ans would not actu­al­ly be per­ceiv­ing dif­fer­ent lev­els of inequal­i­ty in the same sit­u­a­tion. They would just be report­ing the inequal­i­ty they saw in their respec­tive envi­ron­ments. In that sce­nario, no one’s pro­cess­ing infor­ma­tion dif­fer­ent­ly,” Kteily says. They’re just pro­cess­ing dif­fer­ent information.”

To dis­tin­guish between the two pos­si­bil­i­ties, Kteily’s team asked 153 par­tic­i­pants to read a fic­tion­al sce­nario about a pow­er imbal­ance. In this sto­ry, two groups in a made-up coun­try named Raga bat­tle over land, and one group ulti­mate­ly dom­i­nates. As in the first study, the par­tic­i­pants rat­ed the amount of pow­er each group possessed.

The results were the same: peo­ple with egal­i­tar­i­an lean­ings saw a big­ger pow­er gap than did peo­ple who pre­ferred hier­ar­chi­cal soci­eties. In oth­er words, the par­tic­i­pants report­ed dif­fer­ent per­cep­tions of the same, fic­tion­al information.

Do You See What I See?

Kteily sus­pects this dis­crep­an­cy aris­es because the two groups focus on dif­fer­ent details. For instance, an egal­i­tar­i­an might pay more atten­tion to how the dom­i­nant group in Raga had tak­en resources away from the weak­er group. Mean­while, an anti-egal­i­tar­i­an might zero in on the weak­er group’s poten­tial to fight back.

The researchers found sim­i­lar results even after show­ing par­tic­i­pants only abstract pic­tures rep­re­sent­ing fic­tion­al soci­eties and orga­ni­za­tions. In one study, the images were lad­ders with dif­fer­ent num­bers of mon­ey­bags next to the rungs; in anoth­er, the images were lay­ered pyra­mids with dif­fer­ent num­bers of stick fig­ures at each lev­el. For each pic­ture, the par­tic­i­pants rat­ed how strong­ly they agreed with state­ments such as The dis­tri­b­u­tion of mon­ey in this soci­ety is very unequal” or There is not a big dif­fer­ence in the dis­tri­b­u­tion of pow­er from the bot­tom to the top of this orga­ni­za­tion.” Again, egal­i­tar­i­ans report­ed big­ger pow­er dis­crep­an­cies than anti-egalitarians.

To reduce the pos­si­bil­i­ty that peo­ple were delib­er­ate­ly mis­re­port­ing their per­cep­tions, the researchers offered a $12 bonus to par­tic­i­pants who rat­ed the pow­er gaps the most accu­rate­ly. It made absolute­ly no dif­fer­ence what­so­ev­er,” Kteily says.

Fuzzy Mem­o­ries

Col­lec­tive­ly, the stud­ies sug­gest that peo­ple indeed per­ceived the same infor­ma­tion dif­fer­ent­ly. But who is to blame? Was one group see­ing the cor­rect” amount of inequal­i­ty, while the oth­er side was over­es­ti­mat­ing or under­es­ti­mat­ing it? Or were both groups biased?

In the final study, Kteily’s team explored this ques­tion by giv­ing 539 par­tic­i­pants a mem­o­ry test. First, the par­tic­i­pants were shown pic­tures of orga­ni­za­tion­al pyra­mids with dif­fer­ent degrees of hier­ar­chy; for instance, some of the pyra­mids had more lay­ers than oth­ers, and some had flat­ter orga­ni­za­tion­al struc­tures. Next, the researchers asked each per­son to recall which images they had already been shown. Par­tic­i­pants were then pre­sent­ed with sets of pic­tures. Each set con­tained an image the per­son had already seen and four sim­i­lar ver­sions, two that were more egal­i­tar­i­an and two that were more hierarchical.

Peo­ple who pre­ferred hier­ar­chi­cal sys­tems tend­ed to remem­ber see­ing less inequal­i­ty than they had actu­al­ly seen. Sim­i­lar­ly — although the link was weak­er — egal­i­tar­i­ans tend­ed to over­es­ti­mate the amount of hier­ar­chy they had pre­vi­ous­ly seen. This sug­gests that people’s moti­va­tions are col­or­ing their per­cep­tion of the world, Kteily says. Egal­i­tar­i­ans, who want to bring atten­tion to inequal­i­ty, per­ceive large dis­crep­an­cies in line with their call to action. Anti-egal­i­tar­i­ans, who wor­ry that there will be pres­sures to equal­ize soci­ety if pow­er gaps are high­ly vis­i­ble, per­ceive small­er dif­fer­en­tials, con­sis­tent with their argu­ments that no inter­ven­tion is needed.

Kteily notes that the exper­i­ments were done in the U.S., a soci­ety with egal­i­tar­i­an norms, and that results might dif­fer else­where. In India, say, where the hier­ar­chi­cal caste sys­tem is more broad­ly accept­ed, peo­ple might gen­er­al­ly be more tol­er­ant of inequal­i­ty, weak­en­ing anti-egal­i­tar­i­ans’ moti­va­tion to per­ceive small­er pow­er gaps. And while the online par­tic­i­pants cov­ered a fair­ly wide range of polit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tions, SDO lev­els, and soci­etal class­es, they like­ly did not include peo­ple at extreme ends of the eco­nom­ic spectrum.

Tint­ed Lenses

What can be done about the prob­lem? Kteily sug­gests tak­ing a step back and rec­og­niz­ing one’s own biases.

Being mind­ful of the fact that we might be see­ing things through tint­ed lens­es can be help­ful,” he says. For exam­ple, if you are fer­vent­ly push­ing or reject­ing an equal­i­ty-relat­ed mea­sure and get­ting frus­trat­ed with your oppo­nents, acknowl­edge that nei­ther of you may be entire­ly cor­rect. It pro­motes a lit­tle bit of humil­i­ty with respect to your per­spec­tive,” he says.

That does not mean that peo­ple should com­plete­ly dis­miss their own per­cep­tions. I wouldn’t want my mes­sage to be, You’re imag­in­ing things,’” Kteily says. There might very well be a prob­lem. But it’s pos­si­ble that you are also per­ceiv­ing one that’s a lit­tle bit more extreme than the real­i­ty war­rants, and that the reverse is prob­a­bly true of your counterpart.”

Featured Faculty

Nour Kteily

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

Roberta Kwok is a freelance science writer based near Seattle.

About the Research

Kteily, Nour S., Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington, and Arnold K. Ho. 2016. “Hierarchy in the Eye of the Beholder: (Anti-) Egalitarianism Shapes Perceived Levels of Social Inequality.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. doi: 10.1037/pspp0000097.

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