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Framing economic inequality and policy as group disadvantages (versus group advantages) spurs support for action

Abstract

Given the near-historic levels of economic inequality in the United States, it is vital to understand when and why people are motivated to reduce it. We examine whether the manner in which economic inequality and policy are framed—in terms of either upper-socio-economic-class advantages or lower-socio-economic-class disadvantages—influences individuals’ reactions to inequality. Across five studies, framing redistributive policy (Study 1) as disadvantage-reducing (versus advantage-reducing) and economic inequality (Studies 2–5) as lower-class disadvantages (versus upper-class advantages or a control frame) enhances support for action to reduce inequality. Moreover, increased support is partly driven by perceptions that inequality is more unjust if framed as lower-class disadvantages. Using diverse methodologies (for example, social media engagement on Facebook) and nationally representative samples of self-reported upper-class and lower-class individuals, this work suggests that the ways in which economic inequality is communicated (for example, by the media) may reliably influence people’s reactions to and concern for the issue.

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Fig. 1: Raincloud plots with jittered data for respondents’ preferences for the government to reduce poverty or to reduce the gap between the rich and everyone else.
Fig. 2: Raincloud plots with jittered data for respondents’ views on government efficacy to reduce poverty (that is, reduce disadvantages) or to reduce the gap between the rich and everyone else (that is, reduce advantages).
Fig. 3: Infographic about economic inequality with either a disadvantage frame or an advantage frame.
Fig. 4: Relationship between economic inequality framing and support for collective action, mediated by perceived injustice.
Fig. 5: The Facebook ads used in Study 4a (N = 72,324) and Study 4b (N = 67,491).
Fig. 6: Results from Study 4a (N = 72,324).
Fig. 7: Results from Study 4b (N = 67,491).

Data availability

All data and materials have been made publicly available via the Open Science Framework and can be accessed at https://osf.io/f9sr7/.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the reviewers of our Time-sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences (TESS) application for their helpful comments as well as the TESS programme itself for support in Study 3. M.A.C. acknowledges support from the National Science Foundation (grant no. NSF-BCS-1823840). The funder had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript. We thank M. Lee, K. Brennan, C. Hoffman, C. Myers, D. Baltiansky, J. Worrall, P. Ponce and A. Weinberg for helping with the data collection. We also thank L. T. Phillips for her insightful comments on an earlier version of this manuscript.

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P.D. and M.A.C. designed the experiments, collected and analysed the data, and wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Pia Dietze.

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Dietze, P., Craig, M.A. Framing economic inequality and policy as group disadvantages (versus group advantages) spurs support for action. Nat Hum Behav 5, 349–360 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-00988-4

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