Keeping Up with the Joneses Affects Perceptions of Distributive Justice
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An experimental field study investigated why people of higher social standing might jump to the conclusion that an injustice has occurred when an authority implements a program that benefits some constituents but not others. High-status individuals are uniquely vulnerable to downward mobility, especially in the event that a situation does not benefit them, but does benefit their high-status peers. In our study, students in a university course were asked to judge a bonus program by which the grades for some would increase and the grades for others would remain the same. Two framing conditions were used, each providing an example in which only one of two students would benefit from the program. In the peer-gets-ahead condition, the two students were of equal status before the program acted to differentiate them, and in the inferior-catches-up condition, the two students differed in status before the program acted to equate them. A majority of students responded favorably to the program, although this number was affected strongly by framing, with almost unanimous approval in the inferior-catches-up condition and comparatively modest approval in the peer-gets-ahead condition. Objections in the latter condition were most frequent among high-status students, who were implicitly uncomfortable with the possibility that their status could decrease relative to some of their high-status peers. Explicitly, their objections used the language of social injustice, especially claims of distributive unfairness. We argue that these perceptions of injustice are a cognitive manifestation of an aversion to any situation that could result in downward mobility.