Most people misperceive economic inequality. Learning about actual levels of inequality and social mobility, research suggests, heightens concerns but may push people’s policy preferences in any number of directions. This mixed empirical record, we argue, reflects the omission of a more fundamental question: under what conditions do people change their understanding of the meritocratic or non-meritocratic causes of inequality? To explore mechanisms of belief change we field a unique randomized survey experiment with representative populations in Australia, Indonesia, and Mexico—societies with varying levels of popular beliefs about economic inequality. Our results highlight the importance of information, perceived social position, and self-interest. In Indonesia, information describing (high) income inequality and (low) social mobility rocked our participants’ belief in meritocracy. The same information made less of a splash in Mexico, where unequal outcomes are commonly understood as the result of corruption and other non-meritocratic processes. In Australia, the impact of our informational treatment was strongest when it provided justification for people’s income position or when it corrected their perception of relative affluence. Our findings reveal asymmetric beliefs about poverty and wealth and heterogeneous responses to information. They are a call to rethink effective informational and policy interventions.

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This work was supported by the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab Southeast Asia (J-PAL SEA), Oxfam, and the University of Sydney Research Excellence Initiative and Equity Economics.,
Social Problems
Department of Public Administration and Sociology (DPAS)

Mijs, J., & Hoy, C. (2021). How Information About Inequality Impacts Belief in Meritocracy. Social Problems. doi:10.1093/socpro/spaa059