Getting what you deserve?

Simon Goodman, Philippa Carr and Jackie Abell on the psychology of income inequality

26 May 2022

The UK is a particularly unequal society, with the richest 0.1 per cent of households having as much wealth as the poorest half of all households (Equality Trust, 2022). Wilkinson and Pickett (2017) have shown that such elevated levels of income inequality damage society, negatively impacting on physical and mental health, social cohesion, women’s rights, crime, and educational achievement. It renders people unsatisfied with their lives and mistrusting of others (Graafland & Lous, 2019). 

Despite this, there is a paucity of current psychological work looking at explanations for income inequality, especially amongst the super-rich. If we revisit Lerner’s (1980) ‘Belief in a Just World’, one explanation is that people get what they deserve. The concept of meritocracy, first introduced by Young (1958), proposes that success and rewards are a result of intelligence plus effort. We can see the rhetoric of meritocracy reflected in people’s explanations and justifications for income inequality in the UK (Goodman & Abell, 2019), yet it is often forgotten that the concept was introduced by Young as an ironic comment on the foolishness of working hard in the hope of just reward (Allan, 2011). 

In our exploration regarding how the public account for income inequality, Goodman and Abell (2019) conducted focus groups and identified four key arguments they used. These are that:

- inequality is seen as inevitable and avoidable – ‘It’s not right, but we’re a capitalist society’; 

- inequality is unfair – ‘I find it grossly unfair that in a so-called developed nation we have people that have to go to food banks’; 

- inequality works as a motivation to work hard – ‘You’ve got to have something to strive towards. If we all have the same amount of money the world wouldn’t work’; and 

- inequality is the result of individual characteristics – ‘We’ve got different levels of intelligence, different levels of, you know, education and drive’.  

Hence our explanations for income equality may serve to support the status-quo, with psychological ideas of motivation and individual differences being key drivers in arguments that support it. This suggests that measures to overcome inequality may be hard to sell. 

The media contributes to our language about income inequality. For example, dressed up as popular entertainment, income inequality has become a spectacle for us to enjoy. One popular genre of media broadcasting are documentaries about the super-rich [see Box]. In 2015, the BBC2 had a ‘super-rich season’ of programming (e.g., Rich Russians, The Super-Rich and Us). Carr (2020) has examined how this mass media display of the super-rich in domestic settings can serve to normalise extreme wealth and consumption, as well as drive aspirations. For those who have inherited their wealth, the focus is on their efforts to deserve such rewards and their charitable deeds. Heirs present themselves as workers and emphasise wealth as family acquisition rather than a personal one (Carr, 2019). So, whether your wealth is acquired through your own efforts or your family’s, both the media and the super-rich treat your ‘deservedness’ as the accountable issue. Deserving your good fortune is important if the status quo is to remain untroubled.

Accusations of ‘poverty porn’ have also been levelled at UK broadcasters, where television programmes such as Benefits Street are perceived to reify stereotypes of the poor. Goodman and Carr (2017) explored the positioning of the unemployed as ‘just’ in televised debates. In a UK society that views itself as meritocratic, this is the lens through which we portray, explain, and understand income inequality. For the super-rich, it can be a vehicle for legitimising vast wealth. Having more drive and resilience than less wealthy others, their wealth is deserved (Carr et al., 2021). This capitalist and democratic ideology fuels aspirations for others to become wealthy; they just need to put the effort in. On the flip side of the coin, ‘effortfulness’ is used to question the legitimacy of benefit claimants (Gibson, 2009). Why reward the lazy? 

One way to increase equality and ‘level up’ is through tax and public spending. In April 2022, National Insurance Contributions were increased by a 1.25 per cent levy to provide additional funding for health and social care services. For economic psychologists, tax presents a ‘tragedy of the commons’ (Hardin, 1968) quandary where individuals decide whether to act in their own interests or for mutual benefit (Alm, 2017). Using a discursive approach to analyse a radio debate about tax, Carr et al. (2019) notes how people grapple with collective and individualist arguments to negotiate the dilemmas of tax. On the one hand, tax funds essential public services and supports people in need, whilst on the other it is perceived as theft from those who work hard for their money (also see Goodman and Abell, 2019). 

Across psychology we need more investment in understanding and challenging poverty, wealth, and the practices that effectively keep people in their places. We have the knowledge and tools to do this. As well as looking to the politicians and their practices that support an unfair distribution of wealth, we also need to look at and change our language and the values embedded within it. People do not get what they deserve.

BOX: Who are the super-rich? 

Defining the super-rich is complex, as individuals can place their wealth in various assets, investments and complex financial trust arrangements, making them hard to identify. The source of their wealth is also heterogenous. They have contributed to a redefining and broadening of the traditional ‘upper social class’ category, to embrace wealth achieved from a myriad of means (Featherstone, 2014). 

HMRC considers people with a net worth of over £20m to be of interest for their High-Net-Worth Unit (HNWU), devoted specifically to deal with the tax affairs of the super-rich. Tracking the ownership and movement of wealth is notoriously difficult (Beaverstock and Faulconbridge, 2013; Urry, 2014) as we have seen in recent efforts to enforce sanctions on the assets of Russian oligarchs based in the UK.

- Philippa Carr, University of the West of England. [email protected]

- Jackie Abell, Coventry University. [email protected]

- Simon Goodman, De Montfort University. [email protected]


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