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Beliefs disadvantaged people tend to reinforce economic inequality

Published: 26th August 2020 Last updated: 26th August 2020

The way disadvantaged people think about their economic status and their beliefs of others’ opinions contributes to their not acting against the status quo. That is what sociologist Ondrej Buchel concludes in his PhD thesis, which he will defend at Tilburg University on September 4th. Buchel investigated why economic inequality doesn’t really change in societies where people do have a say in public affairs; an issue that’s all the more pressing in the current COVID-19 crisis.

Acknowledged as the defining challenge of our time, economic inequality has far-reaching individual and societal consequences. It negatively affects productivity, decision-making, and health outcomes on the one hand, and political stability and economic growth on the other. Yet economic inequalities do not fundamentally change in societies where people are allowed and encouraged to have their say in public affairs. Why?

Sociologist Ondrej Buchel investigated in various ways why widespread differences in incomes and health are not being protested at a larger scale. Analyzing data from almost 50,000 respondents from 28 countries, Buchel found support for the hypothesis that objectively disadvantaged people are sometimes more likely to defend the status quo than their more successful compatriots.

Furthermore, two experimental studies on a sample of 201 Dutch students suggested that people who are critical of the economic system and assume that their country is not doing well, think that their personal opinions are different from opinions of the general population. Moreover, such thinking tends to get reinforced when people see that someone else is critical of the economic system.

These and other data made Buchel conclude that instead of rising in spirit and assuming that others will finally see at least some of the negative outcomes of the way things are, those hoping for change may get demoralized, feel isolated in their views, and may feel drawn to compromises they should not need to consider.

Therefore, Buchel argues, there is a need for a greater attention and understanding of people’s beliefs about what are the popular opinions and shared values regarding political issues. The status quo is not only reinforced because people do not know enough of inequalities or attempt to rationalize their existence as fair, but also because people do not know that their sentiments are shared by others.

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