Income Inequality Influences Perceptions of Legitimate Income Differences


This article argues that public opinion regarding the legitimacy of income differences is influenced by actual income inequality. When income differences are perceived to be high, the public thinks of larger income inequality as legitimate. The phenomenon is explained by the system justification motivation and other psychological processes that favor existing social arrangements. Three experiments show that personal experiences of inequality as well as information regarding national-level income inequality can affect which income differences are thought of as legitimate. A fourth experiment shows that the system justification motivation is a cause of this effect. These results can provide an empirical basis for future studies to assume that the public reacts to inequality with adapted expectations, not increased demands for redistribution.

Publication Title

British Journal of Political Science