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The developmental origins and behavioral consequences of attributions for inequality

Gonzalez, A. M., Macchia, L. ORCID: 0000-0001-9558-4747 & Whillans, A. V. (2022). The developmental origins and behavioral consequences of attributions for inequality. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 101, 104329. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2022.104329


Attributions, or lay explanations for inequality, have been linked to inequality-relevant behavior. In adults and children, attributing inequality to an individual rather than contextual or structural causes is linked to greater support for economic inequality and less equitable giving. However, few studies have directly examined the relationship between parent and child attributions for inequality. Additionally, it remains unclear whether attributing inequality to individually controllable sources such as effort might lead children to allocate resources more inequitably than individually uncontrollable sources like innate ability. Across three studies (N = 698), we examine the developmental origins and behavioral consequences of inequality beliefs by exploring parent and children's (7–14 years old) attributions for unequal situations. In Study 1, parents, recruited through MTurk, preferred to explain inequality to their children by attributing disparities to effort rather than uncontrollable causes such as ability or luck. In Study 2, in a sample of affluent and mostly white families in Vancouver and Boston, parent attributions for inequality predicted children's attributions, such that children were more than two times as likely to attribute inequality to effort when their parents did. In Study 3, when a convenience sample of children from Washington state were brought to the laboratory and told that an inequality between two groups was due to effort, they were more likely to perpetuate the inequality by giving to the individual who already had more resources. This research documents a cycle of inequality perpetuation by demonstrating that parent attributions for inequality predict their children's attributions and that these attributions affect children's equitable giving. This work highlights the importance of examining the perceived controllability of inequality.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: © 2022. This manuscript version is made available under the CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 license
Publisher Keywords: Social cognition, Inequality, Prosocial behavior, Parent-child transmission
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
H Social Sciences > HM Sociology
Departments: School of Health & Psychological Sciences > Psychology
[img] Text - Accepted Version
This document is not freely accessible until 2 October 2023 due to copyright restrictions.
Available under License Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives.

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