How Inequality Influences People’s Use of Wealth as a Categorisation for Self and Others

Jetten, J. (University of Queensland), Pets, K. (University of Queensland), Mols, F. (University of Queensland), Tanjitpiyanond, P. (University of Queensland)

Wilkinson and Pickett (2009) argue: “If inequalities are bigger, . . . where each one of us is placed becomes more important… It is not simply that where the stakes are higher each of us worries more about where he or she comes. It is also that we are likely to pay more attention to social status in how we assess each other” (p. 44). In other words, with increasing levels of inequality, wealth becomes a fitting basis for categorising the self and others in society (in self-categorisation theory terms, inequality enhances the comparative fit of wealth as a basis for categorisation, Turner et al., 1987). In an experimental study with 226 participants, we manipulated perceived inequality by introducing participants to a fictitious society that is either high or low in income disparity. We explored support for the hypothesis that higher (compared to lower) inequality will be associated with more communication referencing to wealth and more use of wealth-related attributes when judging others. As predicted, participants in the high inequality condition were more likely to mention wealth groups than those in the low inequality condition. Furthermore, with higher inequality, participants rated the importance of knowing wealth-related information as higher. These findings provide preliminary support for our theory that inequality primes people to view their social world through the lens of wealth.


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Person Perception and Intergroup Processes