Letter

Rank reversal aversion inhibits redistribution across societies

  • Nature Human Behaviour 1, Article number: 0142 (2017)
  • doi:10.1038/s41562-017-0142
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Abstract

Income inequality is pervasive despite evidence of inequality-averse social preferences. We show that people will sometimes support inequality to avoid reversing the rank of others in society. Using a third-party dictator game that we call the redistribution game, we found that people sometimes choose more unequal outcomes to preserve existing hierarchies. When a proposed transfer reversed pre-existing income rankings, adults across cultures were twice as likely to reject the transfer. Running the same experimental game in a society of nomadic Tibetan herders with a low level of market integration1, we observed an exceptionally high aversion to rank reversals. In children, we found that inequality aversion develops between the ages of four and five, as shown in previous studies2,3, whereas rank reversal aversion develops between the ages of six and seven. Just as some animal species develop stable pecking orders to reduce in-group violence, human aversion to reversing rank is observed at an early age and across cultures.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported by a grant from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (13&ZD073, 91124004, 71672169 and 31322023). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. School of Management, Zhejiang University, Hangzhou 310058, China.

    • Wenwen Xie
    •  & Xinyue Zhou
  2. Department of Economics, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York 12604, USA.

    • Benjamin Ho
  3. Graduate School of Business, Columbia University, New York, New York 10027, USA.

    • Stephan Meier

Authors

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Contributions

W.X. and X.Z. designed the experiments. W.X. collected the data. W.X., B.H. and S.M. analysed the data. All authors wrote the manuscript and approved the final version.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Xinyue Zhou.

Supplementary information

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    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Tables 1–4, Supplementary Figures 1–3