This observation was made Kteily thought. An associate professor of Management and Organizations at the Kellogg School, he has studied inequality for years, but his research has typically involved asking people directly about their views on issues such as racism and classism.
But that’s rarely how we encounter inequality in the real world, he realized. What if, as he failed to notice the gender bias in that seminar, some people are simply less inclined to notice inequality in the first place? Could this help explain why we have such sharply divergent views on the levels of inequality in the world around us?
In a new study, Kteily and his colleagues—a Kellogg Ph.D Hannah B. Waldfogel, Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington of the London School of Economics, Oliver Hauser of the University of Exeter and Arnold K. Ho of the University of Michigan—found just that: people who hold less socially egalitarian views are less aware of signs of inequality. Social egalitarians, by comparison, are much more wary of inequality—but only when it affects marginalized groups. When it affects dominant or majority group members, they are no more attuned than non-equals.
In other words, Kteily says, people with conflicting beliefs about social hierarchy can look at the same situation and see different things. “The conclusions we reach about how we perceive the world are shaped in important ways by the beliefs we hold,” he says. “We tend to think of ourselves as neutral processors of the world, but the reality is that our belief systems shape what rises to the level of our attention in the first place.”
The findings help shed light on why co-workers can disagree so strongly about issues of inequality within their organization—where one employee sees discriminatory hiring practices, another may see nothing wrong. This, of course, is also a recipe for wider political disagreements between colleagues that can distract them from the work at hand.
“Organizations are increasingly grappling with disagreements among employees about whether more should be done to address issues such as discrimination, both inside and outside the workplace,” says Catley. “These differences in perception can sometimes become quite stark, leading some companies like Coinbase and Basecamp to implement controversial policies that prohibit discussions of politics at work. Our work points to one factor that explains how individuals can reach such different and profound conclusions about inequality at work.”
Who perceives inequality?
To examine this phenomenon, the researchers began by recruiting more than 2,000 online participants and asking them to view photographs of urban life. These scenes deliberately included signs of high and low social status, such as a luxury vehicle parked next to a homeless man’s shopping cart. Participants were then asked an open-ended question: What do you notice in the photo?
To assess participants’ beliefs about social equality, the researchers examined their levels of social dominance orientation, or SDO. Individuals high in SDO are comfortable with social hierarchies, while individuals low in SDO are less comfortable with these hierarchies. For this experiment (and all others in the study), participants answered a 16-question survey that measured their SDO.
When the researchers analyzed participants’ responses, they looked for both direct and indirect references to inequality. Simply noticing the luxury car or stroller—details that signal an economic gap—counts as indirect reference. Explicitly linking these details to inequality was considered a direct reference.
Participants with high SDO—that is, people who hold less socially egalitarian views—were significantly less attentive to inequality than those with low SDO, the researchers found. SDO was negatively associated with direct reports of inequality, but also indirect ones: a sign that people with high SDO are simply not as attuned to signs of injustice in the world around them as people with low SDO.
I just don’t see it: The gender pay gap
There was one possibility that the researchers couldn’t rule out from the first study: maybe people with high SDO actually saw the signs of inequality but just didn’t see them report seeing them.
They decided to investigate this possibility using a clever technique that required online participants to judge, in several quick trials, whether two sets of objects were equal or unequal to each other. In their study, these objects were money bags: on one side of the screen, the money bags were paired with pictures of men and on the other with pictures of women. Half the time, participants saw the same number of money bags on each side of the screen. The rest of the year, they saw more frames associated with men—a representation of the gender wage gap.
For each trial, participants were required to press the space bar when the distribution of bags was equal, but not to press any key if they saw an unequal distribution.
As in the first study, participants’ attention to disparity varied with SDO: social equals were more accurate at identifying unequal numbers of bags than high SDO participants. (The researchers also looked at whether social equals might experience more “false alarms”—that is, be more likely to report inequality when it wasn’t there—but didn’t find that to be true.)
How perceptions change with different types of inequality
In the first two studies, researchers looked at inequality as we traditionally think of it—socially dominant groups benefit at the expense of socially marginalized groups. They had seen that people with high SDO were less attuned to this kind of inequality, but what if things changed? Would individuals high in SDO perceive inequality when it affected the higher status group? And would people with low SDO be equally alert when socially dominant group members were disadvantaged?
As a test of this idea, they recruited nearly 1,500 participants who watched a short video of a panel discussion. Half of the participants saw a video in which the men on the panel spoke 1.5 times more than the women. the other half saw the opposite.
Participants were asked to pay close attention to the video because they would answer a set of questions afterward and could win a $50 prize for the most accurate answers. (Participants were not told which aspect of the video to focus on, and the idea of inequality was not mentioned.)
After watching the video, participants were shown seven pie charts and asked to choose which one accurately represented the amount of talking time the men and women on the panel had.
Consistent with previous studies, SDO predicted how attentive participants were to inequality when it affected disadvantaged groups, in this case, women. Social equals were more likely than high SDO individuals to choose the correct pie chart when they had seen men talk more than women.
However, when participants saw women talking more, there was no significant difference between how accurate high and low SDO participants were in choosing the correct graph.
Researchers saw similar results in another study, which examined perceptions of fairness in hiring practices when either white applicants or applicants of color were favored.
“The way to think about it,” Catley explains, “is that social equals have an advantage in terms of their coordination when they discriminate against disadvantaged groups. When they turn out to be privileged groups, they’re no worse off than people with high SDO – they’re just not any better.”
So what does all this mean? In general, people with high SDO do not perceive inequality as readily as people with low SDO, and people with low SDO are more attentive to a particular kind of inequality—the kind that affects marginalized groups.
Because we don’t all see it the same way
For Kteili, it’s a reminder that our perceptions are not neutral: “We wear ideological blinders that can change both what sets us apart and what doesn’t set us apart.”
But if we know that our ideology shapes our attention, we can learn to be more attentive to things we don’t normally see—allowing for new common ground, or if nothing else, empathy. “Instead of digging in and getting really frustrated when someone doesn’t see things the same way we do, we can recognize that everyone sees what their ideologies push them to see in the first place.”
After all, “what might be really obvious to me might not even be obvious to someone else simply because they weren’t inherently inclined to encode it.”