Income inequality

Support for Redistribution Shaped by Compassion, Self-Interest, Envy

But not a desire for greater fairness.


In a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Professors Leda Cosmides and John Tooby from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and their coauthors take an evolutionary look at the issue of income inequality and redistribution. As the authors note,

"Markets have lifted millions out of poverty, but considerable inequality remains and there is a large worldwide demand for redistribution. Although economists, philosophers, and public policy analysts debate the merits and demerits of various redistributive programs, a parallel debate has focused on voters' motives for supporting redistribution. Understanding these motives is crucial, for the performance of a policy cannot be meaningfully evaluated except in the light of intended ends."

The authors of the study argue that support for redistribution reflects motivations that evolved for the small-scale world of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. "Understanding the economic and political nitty-gritty of redistribution does not come naturally to us," said lead author Daniel Sznycer, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Montreal. "But humans have been interacting with worse-off and better-off individuals over evolutionary time. This process built neural systems that motivate us to act effectively in situations of giving, taking, and sharing."

According to the authors, we see the modern world through the eyes of our ancestors. "Political rhetoric about redistribution involves a cast of characters," said Cosmides, such as "the poor" and "the rich." "The idea is that we view these characters through the lens of motives that evolved to regulate interactions with their ancestral counterparts—community members who are worse-off and better-off than you are."

To understand the logic behind support for—or opposition to—economic redistribution, the research team focused on three motives: compassion, self-interest and envy. They tested how strongly each of these motivations predicted support for redistribution in four societies: the United States, the United Kingdom, India, and Israel.

"Compassion is the emotion that orchestrates need-based help—help toward those worse off than oneself," Tooby explained. "Our ancestors lived in a world without social or medical insurance, and so they benefited from covering each other's shortfalls through mutual help. If your neighbor is starving and you have food, you can save his life by sharing with him. Later, when the situation is reversed and he shares his food with you, your life is saved."

Accordingly, the authors found stronger support for redistribution in people who spontaneously feel more compassion toward individuals in need. Self-interest also played a role: support for redistribution was higher in people who thought that they or their family would benefit from it personally.

The more surprising findings involved envy and fairness. Envy, directed toward those better off than you, predicted support for redistribution. "When a rival outperforms you in some activity, your relative standing decreases," said Sznycer. "People sometimes act to chip away at their rivals' advantages, even when that also harms third parties or even sometimes themselves."

Envy and the spite it generates are socially destructive, he noted, but "they can make sense in the context of an ancestral world that included competitive zero-sum games." When given two hypothetical policies—lower taxes on the rich resulting in more revenue to help the poor versus higher taxes on the rich but less money for the poor—one in six people preferred the second, more spiteful option. This willingness to hurt the poor to pull down the rich was predicted only by the individual's proneness to envy.

Fairness looms large in political rhetoric and theories of justice. But differences in subjects' taste for fairness did not predict how strongly they supported redistribution. The results were the same in the United State, the United Kingdom, India, and Israel: support for redistribution was predicted by compassion, self-interest, and envy, but not fairness.

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  1. The best thing about being a libertarian is that I can abort reading that painfully boring research paper about halfway through with a grumpy ‘who cares’ and feel no guilt.

    1. You’re not interested in knowing what motivates those who would enslave you?

      1. Motives are like assholes.

        1. I only have one asshole, but politics is full of them.

          1. Come to think of it, motives are nothing like assholes. You can have lots of motives and, generally, the more you have the more full of shit you are. Motives are more like a fecal transplant pills.

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  2. Its not like this is some big secret. Its pretty much the entire communist manifesto. Levelers gonna level, I guess. Weird how the people who complain the most about the influence of money are the same people who are influenced the most by it.

    1. Not Hillary! She outspent Trump 2 to1 to prove it.

      1. And out kept everyone by even more!

  3. Support for redistribution comes form those with a guilty conscience from wanting to help (insert group), but not wanting enough to give their own funds, so the next option is to require others to give their funds. I would be a lot more impressed with Bernie if he sold all his houses but the smallest, and gave the money to deserving college students to keep them out of debt. And distributed his campaign funds to feed the homeless.

  4. Semi-related:
    Donald Trump’s proposed tax changes include doubling the standard deduction. Charities fear that this would lead fewer and fewer people to see a financial benefit from charitable giving and thus would cut that giving substantially.

    Which, to be fair, is definitely true. But if the charities need market distortion to do their job than they probably shouldn’t exist.

    1. But if one could keep more of one’s income, wouldn’t that reduce the number of people needing charity in the first place? Yes it would, but some non profit employees would have to find new jobs.

    2. I’d still donate to the Human Fund.

    3. He should Tweet out that it’s a moral imperative that people give 10% or a moral failing if they don’t.

      I kinda wish he smoked and were in Rome so he could flick his cigarette at the Pope after doing so.

    4. Get rid of the charitable deduction altogether. That way buffet can prove how much he wants to pay more taxes.

    5. This is insane. People on the LOW END of the economic scale use the standard deduction.
      People on the high end use the itemized deductions (hint, that’s where the home mortgage interest deduction is).
      So this might slightly cut charitable giving by the poor, working class, and lower middle class. But … those aren’t the people that give the most to charity, and they probably need the money more than the charities do anyway.
      So, fuck you, UNICEF, if you think that raising the standard deduction will stop poor people from donating to you.

  5. “1 in 6 preferred the spiteful option”

    I wouldn’t necessarily trust the motives of the people who responded in this way. I would have to know more about these individuals before I trusted they were responding honestly.

    1. Could be that 1 of 3 people in the country are Democrats and half of them are envious prick bastards,

    2. Is it really that surprising? Anger at wealthy and/or connected “others” was explicitly the driver behind both the Trump and Sanders campaigns. Obama wasn’t shy about dipping into that rhetorical well, either, and plenty of politicians (Liz Warren, for example) have built careers out of it.

      1. I could believe it but untl I have better info I think it’s reasonable to suspect that some of those who responded in this way did so to disparage the motives of left wingers.

        1. How is that “reasonable”?

      2. Except for both Sanders and Trump it wasn’t wealth specifically, but wealth leading to corruption.

        I highly doubt wealth would be much of a concern, except wealth buys privilege, laws, as well as gold toilet seats.

        Much of the same ire has been directed to unions and special interests groups for largely the same reasons.

        I believe the researchers may have misread the motivations for the spiteful options.

    3. Funny, your previous president advocated for exactly this policy od spreading it around no matter the cost. Do you not believe him?

  6. Basically, 16% the population hate rich people more than they care for poor people…noted.

  7. Why is it that forced income (money) redistribution is OK, but sex redistribution is not?!?!

    I think there’s a bunch of people out there “getting some”, while I am “getting less”… Let’s share more equally!!!!

    Oh, wait, lemme amend that… I am “asking for my friends”…

    1. Well, let your friends know that the point of redistribution is not to benefit you, but to take from you. So ‘getting less’ is your fate, in money and in pleasure.

    2. What do you think the “free love” movement was about?

      There has been that aspect to left wing revolutionary movements since at least the French Revolution.

    3. Because the enslavement aspect is too obvious. With taxes you can pretend it’s something else and most people will believe you.

      1. So they should at least support prostitution where the ugly, fat, socially-inept, or terminally bachelor can pay now and again for a little pursuit of pleasure.

        1. Here, let me portray for you, my idealistic utopia where we all have “freedom from sexual want”, or, the right to demand your fair share of free sex from the pretty passers-by. An ideal redistributionist society, if you will? As I put on my tin-foil hat, I foresee a future USA where you will have the right to have intercourse (social and/or sexual) with any passer-by that you demand it from, except, of course, the “public servants” who are too busy enforcing your rights, to have intercourse with you. AKA, they are too busy fucking you over, to let you fuck them! And we will have to sneak, under cover of darkness or fog or smog, from house to house, to have any kind of voluntary social or sexual intercourse, for fear of having “freedom” foisted upon us, if we walk about openly? Or maybe we put on a REALLY ugly, slime-dripping disguise, and take our chances? ? This LOVERLY idea brought to you for FREE by the Church of Scienfoology. To learn more about Scienfoology, please see ?

          1. Read the novel We.

    4. I was actually shocked at the prevalence of open marriages and swingers clubs.

      It is being redistributed.

  8. Is there a correlation between your affinity for redistribution and your income level? Seems to me a little odd that extremely wealthy do-gooders (the Ford, Rockefeller, Gates types) don’t develop the taste for redistribution until after they become extremely wealthy, almost as if wealth acquisition and wealth redistribution are oppositional characteristics. Maybe if you’re interested in helping the poor you should be more concerned with the origins of the wealth acquisition characteristic rather than the wealth redistribution. Sort of a teaching a man to fish rather than giving him a fish sort of thing.

    I’m no expert, but I’ve got a suspicion it has something to do with the concept of delayed gratification. And something to do with giving kids participation trophies, teaching them that everybody’s a winner right out of the blocks instead of teaching them that if they want to win the prize they have to do the work first.

  9. I’ve long said that everybody’s too obsessed with tackling greed nowadays and ignoring its equally ugly and more dangerous counterpart, envy. There is a balance needed.

    1. Yes, greed can inspire constructive action, envy is always destructive.

      1. I can imagine envy leading to constructive activity.

  10. “Compassion” is taxing the s–t out of the middle class in order to pay for bums to live in expensive hotels, because “that’s where they used to live”.

  11. Interesting, I suppose, but since I don’t rely on academics to define natural rights, and especially since I am quick to sneer at them when silly studies conflict with my rights, I see no reason to applaud them when they, by chance, support my rights.

  12. According to the authors, we see the modern world through the eyes of our ancestors.

    Somebody needs to have their science license revoked. Maybe being preyed upon by a distant ancestral relative who is fiscally and *maybe* mentally poorer but otherwise better-off evolutionary-speaking would bring some… inaccuracies to light.

  13. This is related to ongoing research regarding innate fairness norms in human psychology. Some moral philosophers take the position that morality is in some sense biologically innate, that we’ve developed certain moral precepts because of our evolutionary history of what worked for survival in a social environment. Others agree that there are innate moral instincts, but that they are irrational and ought to be suppressed.

    Some of the recent research purports to claim that “equal distribution” norms are innate – i.e. that humans naturally prefer to divide resources equally in a group, and will go out of their way to make sure it happens. This generally is supported by various implementations of the Ultimatum Game, wherein participants are asked to divide a windfall – one player gets to divide the spoils while others can only refuse or accept the distribution. Many people will refuse an unequal distribution even it it means they get nothing.

    However, this behavior only seems to hold IF the gains comes from a windfall. In other experiments, researchers have found that if participants do unequal work to obtain the money, that most people believe that an unequal distribution is fair – that people who do more work deserve a bigger share. So this sort of research highlights the fact that what is considered a “fair” distribution doesn’t necessarily mean “equal”. What is considered “fair” in some sense depends on the rules of the game.

    1. More generally, having games with fair rules allows the distributive outcomes of those games to be considered fair, even if the distribution is unequal. This is called “procedural fairness”. If the rules of the game are rigged, people will consider the distributive outcome unfair. If the rules of the game are fair, the distributive outcome is considered just.

      With respect to this particular research, I would suspect that “envy” may be partly a matter of perceived unfairness in the rules. If you think the rich got rich through some sort of malfeasance, you’re more likely to support redistribution, and even punishment, because they either broke the rules or rigged them to get what they have.

      This is why libertarianism is based on a backbone of fair rules – equal justice under law, property rights, liability, non-violence, voluntary exchange in free markets. The less the system is perceived to be composed of fair and equal rules in which anyone can participate in the market on an equal footing, the more spite and envy will be directed against the successful and the more support for redistribution there will be.

      1. And how does this backbone of fairness account for inheritance (which you might include in property rights, but don’t get to gloss over)? You nicely explain that people may have an innate sense of fairness in distribution relative to amount of work done. Libertarianism doesn’t even claim, as far as I know, to distribute wealth relative to work or any other similar merit. Or at least it doesn’t offer any means of combating wealth accumulation by other means, except egregious and obvious violations.

        1. inheritance falls under voluntary exchange . You leave your wealth to whomever in your will, generally your kids.

        2. how does this backbone of fairness account for inheritance

          It’s my right to leave whatever I have to those I choose. if you have a problem with that, fuck off, slaver.


  14. Pretty much. The ironic thing about progressivism is how much it plays off of the emotions of our prehistoric ancestors.

    Government isn’t a ladder. It’s a mirror.

  15. When given two hypothetical policies?lower taxes on the rich resulting in more revenue to help the poor versus higher taxes on the rich but less money for the poor?one in six people preferred the second, more spiteful option.

    Give me a choice between two ridiculous options and I’ll be a little spiteful too.

  16. “redistribution” is a deceptive misnomer. Wealth isn’t “distributed” in the first place, it’s CREATED. What I earn is mine, and anyone seeking to “redistribute” anything they didn’t produce is a looter.


    1. A political philosophy based entirely on a direct contradiction of Newtonian physics. Because of course.

      1. Shut the fuck up, dumbass. You leftards never sound more stupid than when you try to use analogies from the physical sciences.


  17. This willingness to hurt the poor to pull down the rich was predicted only by the individual’s proneness to envy.

    So, spite goes with envy? That’s amazing! Who could have imagined that something so bleeding obvious would show up in the data?


    1. Clearly you’re envious at the great length of time it took for them to reach an obvious conclusion.

  18. What nobody ever brings up is the – dare I say – structural (as in built into the fabric of the universe) temporal inequalities that persist to this day. An embarrassing number of people throughout history didnt even know what health insurance was. That’s a whole pile of rights being abridged, and its gone right down the memory hole, if you know what I mean.

  19. “Compassion is the emotion that orchestrates need-based help?help toward those worse off than oneself,” Tooby explained.

    If John points a gun at me and orders me to give Jack money, I wouldn’t call that “compassion”.

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