Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

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


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.

This is a preview of subscription content

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

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


  1. 1.

    Piketty, T. in Inequality in the 21st Century (eds Grusky, D. & Hill, J.) 43–48 (Avalon, 2017).

  2. 2.

    Wilkinson, R. G. & Pickett, K. The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone (Penguin, 2010).

  3. 3.

    Sanders, B. Issues: income and wealth inequality. Bernie Sanders (2017).

  4. 4.

    Alvaredo, F., Chancel, L., Piketty, T., Saez, E. & Zucman, G. World Inequality Report: Executive Summary (World Inequality Database, 2018);

  5. 5.

    Lawson, M., et al. Public Good or Private Wealth. (Oxfam GB, 2019).

  6. 6.

    Telford, T. Income inequality in America is the highest it’s been since Census Bureau started tracking it, data shows. The Washington Post September 2019).

  7. 7.

    Hastings, O. P. Who feels it? Income inequality, relative deprivation, and financial satisfaction in U.S. states, 1973–2012. Res. Soc. Stratif. Mobil. 60, 1–15 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Buttrick, N. R. & Oishi, S. The psychological consequences of income inequality. Soc. Pers. Psychol. Compass 11, e12304 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Oishi, S., Kesebir, S. & Diener, E. Income inequality and happiness. Psychol. Sci. 22, 1095–1100 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Jost, J. T., Banaji, M. R. & Nosek, B. A. A decade of system justification theory: accumulated evidence of conscious and unconscious bolstering of the status quo. Polit. Psychol. 25, 881–919 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Bartels, L. M. Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Princeton Univ. Press, 2010).

  12. 12.

    Savani, K. & Rattan, A. A choice mind-set increases the acceptance and maintenance of wealth inequality. Psychol. Sci. 23, 796–804 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    McCall, L., Burk, D., Laperrière, M. & Richeson, J. A. Exposure to rising inequality shapes Americans’ opportunity beliefs and policy support. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, 9593–9598 (2017).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Levitin, M. The triumph of Occupy Wall Street. The Atlantic (2015).

  15. 15.

    Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. The framing of decisions and the psychology of choice. Science 211, 453–458 (1981).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. in Choices, Values, and Frames (eds Kahneman, D. & Tversky, A.) 209–223 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000).

  17. 17.

    Chong, D. & Druckman, J. N. Framing theory. Annu. Rev. Polit. Sci. 10, 103–126 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Swim, J. K. & Miller, D. L. White guilt: its antecedents and consequences for attitudes toward affirmative action. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 25, 500–514 (1999).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Iyer, A., Leach, C. W. & Crosby, F. J. White guilt and racial compensation: the benefits and limits of self-focus. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 29, 117–129 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Powell, A. A., Branscombe, N. R. & Schmitt, M. T. Inequality as ingroup privilege or outgroup disadvantage: the impact of group focus on collective guilt and interracial attitudes. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 31, 508–521 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Lowery, B. S., Chow, R. M., Knowles, E. D. & Unzueta, M. M. Paying for positive group esteem: how inequity frames affect whites’ responses to redistributive policies. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 102, 323–336 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Phillips, L. T. & Lowery, B. S. The hard-knock life? Whites claim hardships in response to racial inequity. J. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 61, 12–18 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    Lowery, B. S., Chow, R. M. & Crosby, J. R. Taking from those that have more and giving to those that have less: how inequity frames affect corrections for inequity. J. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 45, 375–378 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24.

    Chow, R. M. & Galak, J. The effect of inequality frames on support for redistributive tax policies. Psychol. Sci. 23, 1467–1469 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Phillips, L. T. I ain’t no fortunate one: on the motivated denial of class and race privilege. Acad. Manage. Proc. 2015, 19158 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Brown, R. M. & Craig, M. A. Intergroup inequality heightens reports of discrimination along alternative identity dimensions. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 46, 869–884 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    van Zomeren, M., Postmes, T. & Spears, R. Toward an integrative social identity model of collective action: a quantitative research synthesis of three socio-psychological perspectives. Psychol. Bull. 134, 504–535 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    January 2014 Political Survey (Pew Research Center, 2014).

  29. 29.

    Gilens, M. Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America (Princeton Univ. Press, 2012).

  30. 30.

    McCall, L. & Kenworthy, L. Americans’ social policy preferences in the era of rising inequality. Perspect. Polit. 7, 459–484 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Buhrmester, M., Kwang, T. & Gosling, S. D. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk: a new source of inexpensive, yet high-quality, data? Perspect. Psychol. Sci. 6, 3–5 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    2013–2017 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates (U.S. Census Bureau, 2017);

  33. 33.

    Tausch, N. et al. Explaining radical group behavior: developing emotion and efficacy routes to normative and nonnormative collective action. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 101, 129–148 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Brown, R. L. Assessing specific mediational effects in complex theoretical models. Struct. Equ. Modeling 4, 142–156 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    Gunzler, D., Chen, T., Wu, P. & Zhang, H. Introduction to mediation analysis with structural equation modeling. Shanghai Arch. Psychiatry 25, 390–394 (2013).

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Perrin, A. & Anderson, M. Share of U.S. Adults Using Social Media, Including Facebook, Is Mostly Unchanged Since 2018 (Pew Research Center, 2019);

  37. 37.

    Glenza, J. Rich Americans live up to 15 years longer than poor peers, studies find. The Guardian (6 April 2017).

  38. 38.

    Tetlock, P. E. Thinking the unthinkable: sacred values and taboo cognitions. Trends Cogn. Sci. 7, 320–324 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Montada, L. & Schneider, A. Justice and emotional reactions to the disadvantaged. Soc. Justice Res. 3, 313–344 (1989).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    van Zomeren, M., Postmes, T. & Spears, R. On conviction’s collective consequences: integrating moral conviction with the social identity model of collective action. Br. J. Soc. Psychol. 51, 52–71 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    Peer, E., Brandimarte, L., Samat, S. & Acquisti, A. Beyond the Turk: alternative platforms for crowdsourcing behavioral research. J. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 70, 153–163 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. 42.

    Funder, D. C. & Ozer, D. J. Evaluating effect size in psychological research: sense and nonsense. Adv. Methods Pract. Psychol. Sci. 2, 156–168 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. 43.

    Graubard, B. I. & Korn, E. L. Modelling the sampling design in the analysis of health surveys. Stat. Methods Med. Res. 5, 263–281 (1996).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    Most See Inequality Growing, but Partisans Differ over Solutions: About the Survey (Pew Research Center, 2014);

  45. 45.

    Dietze, P. & Knowles, E. D. Social class and the motivational relevance of other human beings: evidence from visual attention. Psychol. Sci. 27, 1517–1527 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Jackman, M. R. & Jackman, R. W. Class Awareness in the United States (Univ. of California Press, 1983).

  47. 47.

    Dietze, P. & Knowles, E. D. Social class predicts emotion perception and perspective-taking performance in adults. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. (2020).

  48. 48.

    Lakhotia, K. & Kempe, D. Approximation Algorithms for Coordinating Ad Campaigns on Social Networks. Proceedings of the 28th ACM International Conference on Information and Knowledge Management (eds Zhu, W. et al.) 339–348 (Association for Computing Machinery, 2019).

Download references


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.

Author information




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

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Pia Dietze.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Primary handling editor: Aisha Bradshaw.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–5, Supplementary Methods and Supplementary Results.

Reporting Summary

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

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).

Download citation


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing