Ideology and Perceptions of Inequality


Rising social inequality across economic, gender, and racial lines is a pressing issue of our time. Despite widespread agreement that inequality exists, there are stark ideological disagreements about its extent, its victims, and about what – if anything – should be done to address it. Prior work demonstrates that the political left – who possess an ideological motivation to attenuate social inequality – perceive more inequality than the political right – who tend to be more tolerant of group-based disparities. Across three chapters, the present dissertation examines potential drivers of partisan differences in perceptions of social inequality. In Chapter 1, I introduce a theoretical model linking ideological motivations – specifically, the motivation to uphold vs. attenuate existing social inequalities – to perceptions of inequality through three key mechanisms: differential access to inequality, differential interpretations of inequality, and differential attention to inequality. In Chapter 2, across five studies, I provide an empirical test of the mechanism of differential attention to examine whether ideological motives shape people’s proclivity to naturalistically notice – and accurately detect – inequality. Moreover, in Chapter 2 I consider whether the link between ideology and attention to inequality depends on whether traditionally disadvantaged or advantaged groups bear the brunt of inequality. In Chapter 3, across two studies, I empirically test two intervention strategies intended to nudge attention to – and recalibrate inaccurate perceptions of – instances of social inequality which affect societally disadvantaged groups. Efforts to address social inequality will remain stifled without an agreed-upon – and accurate – understanding of the extent of the problem. In clarifying how people’s ideological motivations shape their perceptions of – and their proclivity to attend to – social inequality, the present dissertation aims to provide a starting point from which we can work to bring partisan perceptions into greater alignment.

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