Inequality in People's Minds

L. Taylor Phillips, Stephanie J. Tepper, Daniela Goya-Tocchetto, Shai Davidai, Nailya Ordabayeva, M. Usman Mirza, Barnabas Szaszi, Martin V. Day, Oliver P. Hauser, Jon M. Jachimowicz

Research output: Working paper / PreprintWorking paper


The extent of inequality that people perceive in the world is often a better predictor of individual and societal outcomes than the level of inequality that actually exists. As such, scholars from across the social sciences, including economics, sociology, psychology, and political science, have recently worked to understand individuals’ (mis)perceptions of inequality. Unfortunately, many researchers treat the process underlying such perceptions as a black box, focusing predominantly on lay people’s numeric estimates of inequality, and paying less attention to how people come to form these perceptions or what these perceptions mean to participants. In the current review, we draw on research in perception, cognition, and developmental and social psychology, to introduce a novel comprehensive framework for understanding individuals’ perceptions of inequality. We argue that subjective perceptions of inequality should be viewed as a process that unfolds across five interlinked and iterative stages. To form perceptions of the scope of inequality in society, people need to (1) have access to inequality cues in the world, (2) attend to these cues, (3) comprehend these cues, (4) process these cues (often succumbing to motivational biases), and (5) summarize these cues into a meaningful representation of inequality. Our framework highlights when and why lay people may misperceive the scope of inequality in society and provides a roadmap for research to examine how the processes in people's minds affect the outcomes researchers are ultimately interested in.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherPsyArXiv Preprints
Publication statusPublished - 26 Sept 2020


  • economic inequality
  • perception
  • inequality cues
  • bounded rationality
  • lay beliefs
  • folk economics


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