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Inequality, happiness and relative concerns: What actually is their relationship?


This paper briefly and informally surveys different theoretical models of relative concerns and their relation to inequality. Models of inequity aversion in common use in experimental economics imply a negative relation between inequality and happiness. In contrast, empirical studies on happiness typically employ models of relative concerns that assume that increases in others’ income always have a negative effect on own happiness. However, in these latter models, the relation between inequality and happiness can be positive. One possible solution is a rivalry model where a distinction is made between endowment and reward inequality which have respectively a negative and positive effect on happiness. These different models and their contrasting results may clarify why the empirical relationship between inequality and happiness has been difficult to establish.

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Correspondence to Ed Hopkins.

Additional information

I would like to thank Ravi Kanbur, Tatiana Kornienko and, especially, Andrew Oswald for very helpful comments. Any errors are mine.

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Hopkins, E. Inequality, happiness and relative concerns: What actually is their relationship?. J Econ Inequal 6, 351–372 (2008).

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  • Inequality
  • Relative position
  • Social preferences
  • Tournaments
  • Evolution