Living In Wealthy Neighborhood May Bias Views On Wealth Distribution

Because they have biased information about how wealthy most people actually are, wealthy people may be likely to be against redistribution of wealth, according to a new study. The findings suggest that people use their own neighborhoods and communities as a gauge of how much wealth other people have, causing wealthy individuals to perceive the broader population as being wealthier than it actually is.

Study co-author Robbie Sutton says:

“If you’re rich, there’s a good chance you know lots of other rich people and relatively few poor people; likewise, if you’re poor, you’re likely to know fewer wealthy people and more poorer ones. Even if people think objectively and follow rules of statistical inference, richer and poorer people may be led, by the information available to them, to very different conclusions about how wealthy their fellow citizens are, on average, and how wealth is distributed across society.”

The study’s lead author, psychological scientist Rael Dawtry at the University of Kent, adds:

“These results suggest that the rich and poor do not simply have different attitudes about how wealth should be distributed across society; rather, they subjectively experience living in different societies. In the relatively more affluent America inhabited by wealthier Americans, there is perhaps less need to distribute wealth more equally.”

Chain of Associations

Attitudes toward wealth distribution, the findings suggest, derive from more than just an economic motivation to protect one’s self-interest, or a fiscally conservative political ideology. The information provided by our surrounding environment likely also plays an important role.

In the research, over 600 US adults were recruited to complete an online survey in two studies. The resulting statistical model showed a link between participants’ personal household income and their attitudes toward redistribution that was driven by average social-circle income.

Starting with household income, the researchers discovered evidence for a chain of associations.

Household income was linked to estimated social-circle income, which was linked to estimated population income, which was linked to perceived fairness, which was finally linked to attitudes toward redistribution.

Even after the researchers took participants’ political orientation and perceived self-interest into account, this chain-like relationship remained.

The findings, says Sutton, may also help to explain the political polarization observed in countries liked the United States:

“As richer and poorer people increasingly live segregated lives, the information available to becomes increasingly distorted, and increasingly different. People are, effectively, living in an informational bubble, surrounded by people with incomes like theirs but unlike many other Americans’.”


Rael J. Dawtry, Robbie M. Sutton, and Chris G. Sibley
Why Wealthier People Think People Are Wealthier, and Why It Matters: From Social Sampling to Attitudes to Redistribution
Psychological Science, doi: 10.1177/0956797615586560