Psychology Magazine

Redistribution is Supported by Compassion, Envy, and Self Interest, but Not Sense of Fairness.

By Deric Bownds @DericBownds
A huge collaboration looks at support for redistribution of wealth from an evolutionary psychology perspective:
Markets have lifted millions out of poverty, but considerable inequality remains and there is a large worldwide demand for redistribution. Although economists, philosophers, and public policy analysts debate the merits and demerits of various redistributive programs, a parallel debate has focused on voters’ motives for supporting redistribution. Understanding these motives is crucial, for the performance of a policy cannot be meaningfully evaluated except in the light of intended ends. Unfortunately, existing approaches pose ill-specified motives. Chief among them is fairness, a notion that feels intuitive but often rests on multiple inconsistent principles. We show that evolved motives for navigating interpersonal interactions clearly predict attitudes about redistribution, but a taste for procedural fairness or distributional fairness does not.
Why do people support economic redistribution? Hypotheses include inequity aversion, a moral sense that inequality is intrinsically unfair, and cultural explanations such as exposure to and assimilation of culturally transmitted ideologies. However, humans have been interacting with worse-off and better-off individuals over evolutionary time, and our motivational systems may have been naturally selected to navigate the opportunities and challenges posed by such recurrent interactions. We hypothesize that modern redistribution is perceived as an ancestral scene involving three notional players: the needy other, the better-off other, and the actor herself. We explore how three motivational systems—compassion, self-interest, and envy—guide responses to the needy other and the better-off other, and how they pattern responses to redistribution. Data from the United States, the United Kingdom, India, and Israel support this model. Endorsement of redistribution is independently predicted by dispositional compassion, dispositional envy, and the expectation of personal gain from redistribution. By contrast, a taste for fairness, in the sense of (i) universality in the application of laws and standards, or (ii) low variance in group-level payoffs, fails to predict attitudes about redistribution.

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