Rank reversal aversion inhibits redistribution across societies


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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Figure 1: Four types of choice problem.
Figure 2: Preferences for reversal aversion.
Figure 3: Development of reversal aversion preferences.


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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

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.

Correspondence to Xinyue Zhou.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Supplementary Information

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

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Xie, W., Ho, B., Meier, S. et al. Rank reversal aversion inhibits redistribution across societies. Nat Hum Behav 1, 0142 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-017-0142

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