Perceptions of Economic Well-Being and Attitudes Toward Inequality and Redistribution: Evidence from Survey Experiments

Saturday, 21 July 2018: 11:30
Oral Presentation
Fangqi WEN, New York University, USA
Siwei CHENG, New York University, USA
Previous studies have shown that in the U.S., income is correlated with attitudes toward income redistribution, which reflects how material self-interest affects opinions. However, ordinary people generally have a vague sense about the national income distribution. In other words, their perceived income rank might be different from their actual economic standing. Does the misperceived economic well-being affect individual attitudes toward inequality and redistribution? Will we be able to change people’s opinions by correcting their misperceptions? In this study, we try to answer these questions by survey experiments. Specifically, we hypothesize that after being informed about their true income ranks, respondents who originally underestimate (overestimate) economic standing will show higher (lower) tolerance toward inequality and become more (less) averse to redistribution.

Six experiments with a total sample of 3,912 research subjects have been launched in the online platform Amazon Mechanical Turks. Results support the hypothesis proposed above. They are summarized as follows: 1) most respondents (around 90%) underestimate their personal income rank; 2) most respondents (73%) overestimate the average income of the poorest 10% American population, but they (60%) underestimate the average income of the top 1%; 3) after being informed of their true personal income ranks, respondents who initially underestimate themselves believe more in meritocracy, become less concerned about inequality, display less support for redistribution and agree less with the statement “inequality continues to exist because it benefits the rich and powerful”, and opposite effects could be found among respondents who do not underestimate; 4) similarly, if we correct people’s misperceptions of income for the very poor and the very rich, we detect attitudinal shifts as predicted; 5) finally, after being primed with a pessimistic message about intergenerational mobility, respondents show less tolerance toward inequality and more support to redistribution, especially among those who have high expectations of upward mobility.