Steiniger, Tim (2015). The different worlds of inequality: Psychological determinants and implications of economic inequality. PhD thesis, Universität zu Köln.


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Social and economic inequalities have been a concern in human societies throughout history. In recent years especially wealth and income inequality have been the focus of controversial public, political, and scientific debates. The present thesis seeks to contribute to the ongoing inequality debate by regarding economic inequality from a psychological point of view. Together with Detlef Fetchenhauer, Thomas Schlösser, and Daniel Ehlebracht, I experimentally investigated the psychological determinants and consequences of economic inequality in three different studies. Of the many aspects that inequality comprises, we particularly focused on the association between inequality and justice (Chapter 2 and Chapter 3) as well as its consequences for affects, emotions, and cooperation (Chapter 2 and Chapter 4). In this context, inequality as conceived in Chapter 2 might be most comparable to income inequality because it emerges as a consequence of individuals’ performance in a working task. Inequality as conceived in Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 might be most comparable to wealth inequality because it is the result of a random assignment to an advantageous or disadvantageous societal position, as is inheritance. Nevertheless, all inequalities examined within this research project are closely related, as they share an economic or monetary basis. In Chapter 2, we experimentally explored the emotional and affective consequences of inequality and their association to justice perceptions. In particular, our participants had to solve effort-based tasks and were assigned to compensation systems referred to as tournament system and equality system. Whereas tournament systems evoked high outcome disparities, equality systems, as they were applied, caused equal outcome distributions. In accordance with prior research (e.g., Schlösser & Fetchenhauer, 2015), we found that the equality system was perceived to be more just than the tournament system. Yet, the effect of the system’s justice on affect and emotions was found to be small and both appeared, instead, to be crucially determined by the income and the status of a participant within a given system. For instance, those that benefited from the unequal tournament system perceived the system to be unjust but reported the highest positive affect and the lowest negative affect, anger, and guilt. A possible explanation might be that—within our research paradigm—beneficiaries cannot be hold accountable for the negative consequences of the exogenously determined compensation systems which might detach their justice perceptions and affects as well as emotions. In Chapter 3, we investigated whether a person’s personal sensitivity towards justice (i.e., justice sensitivity) predicts equality preferences in democratic systems. Prior research found that unequal distributions are likely to be perceived as unjust (e.g., Deutsch, 1975), hence, we assumed that persons who are truly concerned about the just treatment of others (i.e., other-sensitive persons) hold a genuine preference for equal distributions and low inequality. Persons who show the tendency to predominantly care about a just treatment for themselves (i.e., victim-sensitive persons) were instead assumed to hold no genuine distributional preferences, but rather prefer the degree of inequality within their monetary self-interest. With the help of a so-called welfare state game (e.g., Biniossek & Fetchenhauer, 2007; Lotz & Fetchenhauer, 2012), we measured equality preferences in a democratic decision-making process. Indeed, other-sensitive persons displayed a general preference for low inequality irrespective of whether they financially gained or lost out on that decision. In contrast, victim-sensitive persons preferred either low inequality or high inequality depending on whether the one or the other was in their financial interest. In Chapter 4, we finally investigated the relationship between democratically determined economic inequality and cooperation. Based on previous research which found that in particular endogenously induced inequality harms preconditions for cooperative behavior, such as trust (e.g., Greiner et al., 2012), we assumed that democratically induced inequality hampers cooperation. In accordance with this assumption, we found that groups which previously implemented high inequality through a majority choice displayed relatively low levels of cooperation compared to groups which previously implemented low inequality. In addition, we found that the mechanism driving this effect is likely based on motivated reasoning rather than based on self-selection, similarity, risk, or inequality aversion. These findings suggest that high degrees of inequality harm cooperation in democratic systems. Chapter 5 provides an integrative discussion of the presented empirical research findings, while Chapter 6 suggests possible paths for future research.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD thesis)
Translated title:
Die unterschiedlichen Welten der Ungleichheit: Psychologische Determinanten und Implikationen ökonomischer UngleichheitGerman
Steiniger, Timtim.steiniger@gmx.deUNSPECIFIED
URN: urn:nbn:de:hbz:38-65254
Subjects: Psychology
Uncontrolled Keywords:
Social inequality, economic inequality, equality, wage, perceived justice, emotion, affect, guilt, anger, compensation system, tournament, cooperation, public goods game, justice sensitivity, JS victim, JS others, endogenous inequality, democratic decision-making, voting, laboratory experimentUNSPECIFIED
Faculty: Faculty of Management, Economy and Social Sciences
Divisions: Weitere Institute, Arbeits- und Forschungsgruppen > Institute of Sociology and Social Psychology (ISS)
Language: English
Date: 2 November 2015
Date of oral exam: 16 December 2015
NameAcademic Title
Fetchenhauer, DetlefProf. Dr.
Hölzl, ErikProf. Dr.
Refereed: Yes


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