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Shifting attributions for poverty motivates opposition to inequality and enhances egalitarianism


Amidst rising economic inequality and mounting evidence of its pernicious social effects, what motivates opposition to inequality? Five studies (n = 34,442) show that attributing poverty to situational forces is associated with greater concern about inequality, preference for egalitarian policies and inequality-reducing behaviour. In Study 1, situational attributions for poverty were associated with reduced support for inequality across 34 countries. Study 2 replicated these findings with a nationally representative sample of Americans. Three experiments then tested whether situational attributions for poverty are malleable and motivate egalitarianism. Bolstering situational attributions for poverty through a writing exercise (Study 3) and a computer-based poverty simulation (Studies 4a and b) increased egalitarian action and reduced support for inequality immediately (Studies 3 and 4b), 1 d later and 155 d post-intervention (Study 4b). Causal attributions for poverty offer one accessible means of shaping inequality-reducing attitudes and actions. Situational attributions may be a potent psychological lever for lessening societal inequality.

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Fig. 1: Situational attributions for poverty and support for economic inequality.
Fig. 2: Effects of SPENT game on support for economic inequality over time.

Data availability

All data supporting the findings in this manuscript are publicly available on the Open Science Framework and can be found here:

Code availability

All custom code for data cleaning and analysis supporting the findings in this manuscript are available on the Open Science Framework and can be found here:


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Funding for Study 2 was provided by a Canada 150 research grant to A.S. Funding for Study 3 was provided by a Department of Psychological Science research grant to P.K.P. Funding for Studies 4a and b was provided by a Psychology Department Research grant to L.B.A. None of these funders had a role in the conceptualization, design, data collection, analysis, decision to publish or preparation of any part of this manuscript.

Author information




P.K.P. and D.W. contributed equally. All authors helped develop the study concepts and contributed to the study designs. Testing and data collection were performed by P.K.P., D.W. and A.R.R. P.K.P., D.W. and A.R.R. analysed and interpreted the data and drafted the manuscript, and B.M., L.B.A. and A.S. provided critical revisions. All authors approved the final version of the manuscript for submission.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Paul K. Piff or Dylan Wiwad.

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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.

Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Effect sizes and standard errors for each dependent variable in Study 4a.

* denotes the Guimond et al.35 measure of attributions for poverty and ** denotes the Nickols and Nielsen45 measure of attributions for poverty (as reported in the main text).

Extended Data Fig. 2 Study 4a mediation model.

Mediation model with the Nickols and Nielsen45 measure of situational attributions for poverty in Study 4a (n = 611). Situational attributions for poverty mediated the effect of the poverty simulation on support for economic inequality.

Extended Data Fig. 3 The effects of SPENT on support for economic inequality over time.

Graph illustrating the effects of the poverty simulation (SPENT game) versus no-game control condition on support for economic inequality over days between first (Time 1) and last survey (Time 3; n = 111).

Extended Data Fig. 4 Study 4b time 1 mediation models.

Study 4b mediational models showing that the poverty simulation (SPENT) led to reduced support for economic inequality (top) and increased support for redistribution (bottom) by inducing greater situational attributions for poverty at Time 1 (n = 611).

Extended Data Fig. 5 Study 4b time 2 mediation models.

Study 4b mediational models showing that the poverty simulation (SPENT) led to reduced support for economic inequality (top) and increased support for redistribution (bottom) by inducing greater situational attributions for poverty at Time 2 (n = 555).

Extended Data Fig. 6 Study 4b time 3 mediation models.

Study 4b mediational models showing that the poverty simulation (SPENT) led to reduced support for economic inequality (top) and increased support for redistribution (bottom) by inducing greater situational attributions for poverty at Time 3 (n = 110).

Extended Data Fig. 7

Visual inspection of regression assumptions for linear regression in Study 1.

Extended Data Fig. 8

Visual inspection of regression assumptions for multilevel model in Study 1.

Supplementary information

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Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Results, Supplementary Tables 1–4 and Supplementary References.

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Piff, P.K., Wiwad, D., Robinson, A.R. et al. Shifting attributions for poverty motivates opposition to inequality and enhances egalitarianism. Nat Hum Behav 4, 496–505 (2020).

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