The link between perceptions of autonomy and global views of income inequality

Research from the Center for Social Norms & Behavioral Dynamics finds that people who feel independent think that most others are, too. They also underestimate the level of poverty in the United States.

Stock image of a person staring out the window, with greyed out images of other people illuminated as if the first person is thinking about them.

People who feel they have control have over their own lives, particularly compared to those who are less autonomous, underestimate the level of income inequality in the world and believe the inequity that does exist is acceptable, according to a new paper from the University of Pennsylvania published in the journal PLOS ONE

“There has been a lot of research done on freedom and economic inequality, but I thought it was important to analyze the perceptions that people have about their own freedom and autonomy,” says Cristina Bicchieri, the S. J. Patterson Harvie Professor of Social Thought and Comparative Ethics, who studies judgement, decision-making, and social norms. “Given how people perceive their own and other people’s autonomy, I wanted to understand how they perceive the extent of inequality.” 

In collaboration with Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor Barbara Mellers, Abraham Aldama, a postdoctoral researcher in Penn’s Center for Social Norms & Behavioral Dynamics, and colleagues from the University of Fribourg and the University of Oregon, Bicchieri created a two-part survey. 

Up close headshot of a person in front of a black background.
Cristina Bicchieri is the S. J. Patterson Harvie Professor of Social Thought and Comparative Ethics in the School of Arts & Sciences. (Image: Courtesy Cristina Bicchieri)

The first half included a large battery of questions specifically about measures of autonomy that psychologists often use to measure how much people think they’re in control of their lives. For example, how empowered are people to make their own decisions and how much external pressure do they feel when making them? 

Part two of the survey included questions about people’s views on inequality, specifically focused on income, education, and health. “There are obvious inequalities everywhere,” Bicchieri says. “The question is, how do people perceive them? Do they have a correct assessment? Do they overestimate or underestimate them?” 

In June and July 2019, nearly 3,500 Americans, average age 47, answered the survey. Median household income ranged from $50,000 to $55,000. Analysis of the responses showed that people who felt highly autonomous themselves thought most others were autonomous as well. Such people also believed that inequality across the board was much lower than the true numbers, which show that disparities have consistently grown in the U.S. since the 1960s. 

“The question is why. Why do people misperceive the extent of inequality?” Bicchieri says. “If you think that most people are masters of their own lives, then you also think that they can better their own lives if they wished, as they are in control of their lives. Admitting that there are more poor people than you imagined shows that many people aren’t really using their opportunities.” This can be difficult to believe, she says. 

“When people think they are in control, they also tend to think that economic results depend on their own actions rather than luck or someone else’s actions,” Aldama adds. “This then tends to make people believe that whatever inequality exists is fair. In other words, if you’re poor it’s because you didn’t put in enough effort.” 

There are obvious inequalities everywhere. The question is, How do people perceive them? Do they have a correct assessment? Do they overestimate or underestimate them? Cristina Bicchieri, S. J. Patterson Harvie Professor of Social Thought and Comparative Ethics

As a next step, the researchers have begun an experiment asking some of these same questions but also providing participants with real U.S. poverty statistics. Early findings suggest that even having such information doesn’t change people’s views. “This is preliminary, but it’s very interesting,” Bicchieri says. “It looks like people have strong ideological convictions, that this isn’t just ignorance. This isn’t just people underestimating poverty because they don’t know the data.” 

This work looked at just one psychological aspect driving perceptions of inequality, but Aldama believes there could be others to explore in the future. Beyond that, he suggests the findings may have policy implications. “This has the potential to help us understand a little more of where policy preferences come from,” he says. “If we believe that certain policies might be helpful, generally, how do we nudge people to support them? What kinds of interventions might push people toward certain policy preferences?” 

To Bicchieri’s mind, doing so comes down to closing the gaps in opportunity and creating a more uniform education system, to start. 

“Here we are in America, the country in which people believe that with hard work you can make it. You have to realize there’s a huge inequality of opportunity. If you get a low-level education, your opportunities are curtailed,” she says. “But offering a strong education can bring people more in tune with facts and data and—hopefully—makes them more tolerant.”  

Funding for this research came from the Charles Koch Foundation. 

Cristina Bicchieri is the S. J. Patterson Harvie Professor of Social Thought and Comparative Ethics in the School of Arts & Sciences. She is also a professor of legal studies at the Wharton School. She is the director of the Center for Social Norms & Behavioral Dynamics and founding director of the Master of Behavioral and Decision Sciences program at the University of Pennsylvania..

Barbara Mellers is the I. George Heyman University Professor, a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor, and professor of psychology and marketing with appointments in the School of Arts & Sciences and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Abraham Aldama is a postdoctoral researcher in the Center for Social Norms & Behavioral Dynamics in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences