Harvard Study: Being Exposed To Income Inequality Makes You More Conservative

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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People who are exposed to income inequality are less likely to want to increase taxes, according to a new Harvard University study.

The study, published Wednesday, found only 6 percent of people would sign a petition to raise taxes after passing a poor-looking white actor on the street, but 14 percent signed the same petition held by an affluent-looking white actor. Researchers conducted their study in wealthy neighborhoods in Boston, Mass.

Researchers hired actors to pose as affluent or poor people as part of a fake petition drive to raise taxes and cut plastic bag use. When pedestrians passed a poor-looking actor they were far less likely to support the tax proposal, but support for the petition to cut down plastic bags use didn’t change.

This was the opposite of what Harvard researchers expected.

“I was curious about whether there may be a treatment effect of living in a city. It’s the great equalizer in a way,” Melissa Sands, a doctoral student at Harvard who conducted the research, said in a statement.

“People from all walks of life are together on the train. I thought perhaps part of why cities tend to be left-leaning is because people have those experiences, they see people from different socio-economic backgrounds, and that might make them more empathetic,” Sands said.

This was one of the first studies ever to actually use inequality in the real world to measure different responses.

“One way this study departs from what’s been done previously is that this is the first study to experimentally manipulate inequality in the real world,” Sands said. “Most prior studies used a survey approach, in which they would show participants a chart or provide them with some information, and then ask questions. This is a big departure from that because we’re creating what I call ‘microsettings’ of inequality.”

Sands plans to conduct more research of this type in different regions of the U.S. and with different levels of exposure to inequality.

Previous research using black actors found their appearance had no impact on how likely pedestrians were to sign a petition.

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