Attitudes to inequalities: perceptions, judgments

Attitudes to inequalities: perceptions, judgments, justifications

Inequality is one of the great challenges facing democratic societies in the 21st century. Notwithstanding the nebulous nature of democracy as a concept, the equal standing of individuals is one of its core ideals. In Europe, rising inequality has been linked to the public’s declining support for democracy and, often, its increasing attraction to nationalist-populist leaders. Concerns over inequalities surged in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has laid bare some of the deep divisions within and between European nations.

However, economists have emphasized that inequalities result from political choices. In democratic societies, these choices will be determined by what citizens think about inequalities and whether they perceive injustices. For instance, high taxes for redistributive policies will be tolerated only if people think it is a fair procedure. The research project consists in studying the cognitive and cultural aspects of inequality: investigating what people think about inequalities and why.

  • How are beliefs and moral judgements about inequalities formed?
  • Are beliefs adequate, and if not, what are the sources of biases?
  • What type of inequalities do people find acceptable and what type do they think deserve reducing, even at some cost to themselves?

This CIVICA Research project consists in answering these questions and, more generally, investigating the various expressions and determinants of people’s attitudes to inequalities. We will investigate the perception and justification as well as judgment of inequality in its various forms or guises. These are mental states which are, we suggest, both influencing and influenced by social and cultural phenomena.

As we already noted, attitudes towards inequalities are consequential on what policies are approved and adopted. In addition, they can motivate many types of social choices, including the choice to contribute to others’ welfare, even at a cost to the self. The latter phenomenon is the topic of many studies in experimental economics and psychology. 

However, what has been less thoroughly studied is how attitudes towards inequality are themselves influenced by the cultural and social environment. Which social and cultural factors modulates attitudes to inequalities? Answering this question requires an interdisciplinary approach that draws on cognitive psychology, social anthropology, sociology, and political sciences. On one hand, there is active research in moral psychology about the processes that issue fairness judgments, and on the other, a rich literature in social anthropology on the socio-cultural embeddedness and cultural diversity of such judgments.

Researchers involved

  • Angarika Deb
  • Christophe Heintz
  • Emeric Henry
  • Annabelle Lever
  • Vlad Naumescu
  • Lou Safra
  • Cătălin Augustin Stoica
  • Akos Szegofi
  • Radu Umbreș
  • Harry Walker

Angarika Deb is a PhD researcher at Central European University, working in the Departments of Cognitive Science and Social Anthropology, under an interdisciplinary fellowship. Her current research interests lie in the cognitive mechanisms that underlie social behavior and the role of social and cultural norms in the evolution of behavioral traits. She has worked in various fields, ranging from evolutionary biology and human behavioral ecology to cognitive linguistics, cultural evolution and anthropology.

Christophe Heintz is an associate professor and head of the Department of Cognitive Science at Central European University. He is especially interested in the cognitive bases and social determinants of fairness judgments. Reciprocally, he wonders to what extent such judgments, moral intuitions and social preferences actually shape institutions, norms, and other social phenomena. Other research interests include: epistemic vigilance, science studies, cultural evolution, communication.

Emeric Henry is Professor of Economics at Sciences Po Paris. He is a microeconomist using theory, empirics and experiments to study public policy issues. His current interests focus on the role of the public sector, the impact of media and fact checking and the dynamics of social norms. He has published in the best journals in economics (AER, JPE, JEEA, EJ) and outside (PNAS, Management Science). He is a CEPR fellow.

Annabelle Lever is a political philosopher working at the intersection of contemporary political philosophy, philosophy and public policy, and philosophy of law. Her research and publications are primarily concerned with privacy and democracy, although she has also published articles on sexual and racial equality, on intellectual property and the ethics of patenting human genes. She is currently editing New Frontiers in the Philosophy of Intellectual Property for Cambridge University Press. She is a Professor at Sciences Po in Paris and a Permanent Researcher at the Centre de recherches politiques de Sciences Po (CEVIPOF).

Vlad Naumescu is an associate professor and head of the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Central European University. He is an anthropologist of religion broadly interested in questions of learning and cultural transmission. He has done extensive fieldwork on religious transformation in postsocialist Western Ukraine (2003-2006), with Russian Old Believers in Romania (2007-2012), and Syrian Christians in Kerala, South India (since 2013). He has explored various topics including politics of memory, technologies of the imagination, time and temporality, doubt in ritual, ethics and morality, religious-secular formations in state socialism and after. 

Lou Safra is an assistant professor at the CEVIPOF (Sciences Po Paris) and an associate researcher at the Institut d'Études Cognitives (Laboratoire de Neurosciences Cognitives & Institut Jean Nicod, École Normale Supérieure, Paris). She is interested in the cognitive mechanisms underlying social and political behaviour, notably leader choice and cooperation. In particular, she adopts an ecological and evolutionary approach to better understand the inter-individual differences in these domains, across both space and time. She relies on behavioral data, social surveys, computational modeling and, more recently, the analysis of cultural artifacts such as paintings and books.

Cătălin Augustin Stoica is an Associate Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology at the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration. His research interests cover social research methodology, social stratification and inequality, economic sociology and anthropology, quantitative methods, conspiracy theories, social movements, sociology of communism and post-communism. His works have been published in Romanian, US, German, Polish, and Hungarian journals and books.

Akos Szegofi is a PhD researcher in the Department of Cognitive Science at Central European University. He works on the human cognitive capacities that assess the truth-value of communicated information – also known as epistemic vigilance. He is interested in contemporary communicative phenomena such as fake news, disinformation and conspiracy theories, as well as the institutional and cultural contexts of post-truth. His research uses an interdisciplinary approach merging experimental and historical methods alike. He has previously worked in the fields of journalism, international relations and nationalism studies.

Radu Umbreș currently works at the Faculty of Political Science, National School for Political Studies and Public Administration. He does research in social anthropology, cognitive science and evolutionary psychology. His book, titled Living with Distrust. Morality and cooperation in a Romanian village, will be published later in 2021 by Oxford University Press.

Harry Walker is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at The London School of Economics and Political Sciences. He specialises in the anthropology of Latin America, with a focus on the indigenous peoples of Amazonia. He has carried out long-term fieldwork with the Urarina, a hunting and horticultural people of lowland Peru, exploring a broad range of issues including selfhood, shamanism, law, materiality, sport, bureaucracy, egalitarianism, happiness, and the commons. His most recent research concerns everyday experiences of justice and injustice.

Events and other activities

SMASH workshop 2021

Central European University: Department of Cognitive Science, Department of Sociology & Social Anthropology

Seminar 1: Moral reasoning and social inequality

24 September 2021

  • Daniel Nettle (Newcastle University): How moral is inequality?
  • Harry Walker (London School of Economics): Building ‘Community’, Building ‘The State’: Moralities of Cooperation in Amazonia
  • Tamara Kusimova (Central European University): Cultural Narratives of Inequality and Responsibility among Russian
  • Radu Umbres (SNSPA Bucharest): Discussion

Seminar 2: Social conventions and moral norms

1 October 2021

  • Oliver Curry (University of Oxford): Morality as Cooperation: The new science of right and wrong
  • Cailin O'Connor (University of California, Irvine): Modeling Minimal Conditions for Social Ills
  • Angarika Deb (Central European University): Unpacking what goes on in-house: Fairness in division of household labour
  • Clark Barrett (University of California, LA): Discussion

Seminar 3: Cultural transmission of moral dispositions

8 October 2021

  • Rita Astuti (London School of Economics): Teaching children how to behave morally, without them knowing that they are doing so
  • Anni Kajanus (Helsinki University): Learning not to help
  • Pooja Venkatesh (CEU): Risk isn’t bedlam: The pedagogy of an intuitive anubhava among traditional healers
  • Gyuri Gergely (CEU): Discussion

Organisers:Vlad Naumescu, Christophe Heintz, Angarika Deb, Tamara Kusimova, Pooja Venkatesh