Ariely, along with Michael Norton of Harvard Business School, conducted a survey to determine what level of inequality Americans tolerate if their incomes were randomly assigned, an equilibrium that philosopher John Rawls called the “just society.” The duo asked nearly 6,000 Americans to guess what percent of wealth they thought was owned by each of the five quintiles of income levels in the United States and what their ideal level of income distribution would be. Then, Ariely and Norton presented the respondents with three unlabeled charts showing–unbeknownst to them–the distribution of income in a perfectly equal society, the United States, and Sweden, respectively, and asked which society they would choose to live in.
The results were quite shocking:
First, respondents vastly underestimated the actual level of wealth inequality in the United States, believing that the wealthiest quintile held about 59% of the wealth when the actual number is closer to 84%. More interesting, respondents constructed ideal wealth distributions that were far more equitable than even their erroneously low estimates of the actual distribution, reporting a desire for the top quintile to own just 32% of the wealth
The (unlabeled) United States distribution was far less desirable than both the (unlabeled) Sweden distribution and the equal distribution, with some 92% of Americans preferring the Sweden distribution to the United States.
He summarized his research findings for Chrystia in the following way:
I think what politicians often do is cover things with layers of words that in many ways obscure the topics. ‘What about taxes? And what’s your opinion about abortion and social mobility?’ But when you look deep down, it turns out Americans really believe in much more equality than we currently have. And this kind of gives me hope that as long as we can get a discourse to be more about the beliefs, we might get something better.