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Despite ideals, people don’t really like reducing inequality, study finds

Researchers conducted eight experiments and a field study of voter perception of California’s Prop. 16, which would have overturned the state’s ban on affirmative action in public employment and education. (Photo: Kirby Lee via AP)

Berkeley, Calif—Most Americans say they want a more equal society, yet policies aimed at increasing equality for disadvantaged groups in higher education, corporations, government, and elsewhere continue to generate backlash.

This backlash has been blamed on a range of causes—including majority white Americans’ fears of losing their status, political partisanship, and overt prejudice.

A study by Berkeley Haas researchers, published today in the journal Science Advances, offers a new take, identifying an underlying cause of this opposition that cuts across ideologies: People in advantaged positions view equality itself as harmful, and tend to think that inequality benefits them.

“We found that people think of the world in zero-sum terms, so that a gain for one group must necessarily be a loss for another,” says study co-author Derek Brown, a Berkeley Haas doctoral student. “This seems to be a cognitive mistake that everyone is susceptible to, not just a vociferous minority that has antipathy toward any certain group.”

The paper, co-authored by Berkeley Haas assistant management professor Drew Jacoby-Senghor along with Columbia University PhD student Isaac Raymundo, helps explain why even people with strong egalitarian beliefs may still block policies that reduce disparities. Beyond the threat of losing status, people in advantaged groups are prone to the perception that greater equality means less for them—to the point where they’ll vote for policies that cause them economic harm and increase inequality over policies that benefit them and reduce inequality, the study found.

“In our experiment, it was more important to people how well off they were relative to other groups than how they were doing in absolute terms,” Jacoby-Senghor says. “They view a loss in relative advantage as an absolute loss, even when it’s a clear material gain.”

Beyond race and ethnicity

In prior research, Brown found non-Latino white and Asian people—who make up the majority in higher education—see policies that increase minority representation in a graduate program as reducing their chances of admission, even explicitly win-win policies that also increase the number of admission spots for the majority.

In the new paper, Brown and colleagues go beyond race and ethnicity to other types of real-world inequalities, such as the gender wage gap and the hiring gap for those with disability status or a criminal record. They also studied voters’ perceptions of a 2020 California ballot initiative to overturn the state’s ban on affirmative action, and even concocted scenarios involving disparities between fictional teams with random names. Time and again, across all ideologies, study participants in advantaged groups rejected policies to reduce inequality on the false belief that they would end up with less access to resources.

Zero-sum game

Past research has often focused on policies that are zero-sum, such as hiring fewer white people in order to hire more members of minority groups, making it hard to parse perceptions from actual impact. Brown and Jacoby-Senghor asked people to only assess non-zero-sum policies that help disadvantaged groups without taking anything away from—and even improving things for—advantaged groups. Across all experiments, they controlled for five well-studied forms of ideological opposition to equality: political conservatism, preference for hierarchical social structures, belief that society is zero-sum, system-justifying beliefs, and explicit prejudice. While they found some of them correlated with perceptions of policies, variations in ideology did not explain people’s negative view of greater equality.

In one scenario, for example, non-Latino white study participants were told, “In 2018, white homebuyers received roughly $386.4 billion in mortgage loans from banks, while Latino homebuyers only received around $12.6 billion in mortgage loans overall.” The participants were then presented with proposals for banks to either increase the amount of loans for Latinos, decrease the amount, or leave it unchanged, while maintaining the loans for white homebuyers. Even so, participants misperceived the proposal to increase the amount for Latino buyers as lowering their own chances of getting a loan, and thought decreasing the amount available to Latinos would improve their chances.

This misperception also held true when the researchers tested win-win policies that benefit both majority and minority groups. A mention of societal benefits also did not cause a shift: White participants in one study thought a policy that would reduce inequality by offering more loans for Latinos and benefit society by stimulating mortgage investment for all groups would reduce their ability to get a loan, while they perceived a policy that would decrease loans to Latinos—worsening inequality—and decrease overall mortgage investment as not harming them.

Even when white participants were directly told that anyone who wanted access to a loan could get one and there was no limit on the amount available, they continued to believe that also boosting loans to Latinos would slightly reduce their chances of getting a loan.

“The causes and solutions to inequality are complex, but even when we simplified it and bent over backwards to make sure everyone is better off in these scenarios, people still found a way to believe they’ll be harmed,” Jacoby-Senghor says.

In fact, the only thing that erased majority participants’ misperceptions were proposals that enhanced equality between members of their own group—such as when a group of male participants considered reducing pay disparity between men, rather than between men and women.

Predicting voting

The researchers examined this dynamic in a real-world field study, surveying California voters on Proposition 16, which would have overturned the state’s ban on considering race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in public employment, education, and contracting.

“We wanted to see if this misperception about equality predicted how people would vote,” Brown said.

It did. They found that the majority of whites and Asians believed the measure would reduce their access to education and job opportunities. The more strongly they held that belief, the less they supported Prop.16. In fact, a belief that the measure would harm their chances was a stronger predictor of how people would vote than their political party or any other ideological variable. In a follow-up survey two weeks after the first, researchers found that people who switched to a no vote reported a growing perception that the measure would hurt them.

Rattlers vs Eagles

In their final experiments, the researchers tested whether majority members of completely fictional groups would reject more equitable outcomes based on a misperception of harm. In contrast with prior experiments that only involved majority group members, the researchers recruited a racially and ethnically diverse subject pool. They told them they were assigned based on a personality test to a team called the Rattlers, which would compete against the Eagles in a problem-solving challenge (in reality, this personality test did not determine group assignment and the Eagles didn’t exist). Participants were told that the Rattlers had received more bonuses than the Eagles in the past couple of weeks, and so they were asked to consider more equal ways to distribute bonuses.

Even with made-up groups, the same dynamic held: Members of the Rattlers rejected a win-win proposal that would give monetary bonuses to 5 more Rattlers and 50 more Eagles—still leaving the Rattlers ahead—and instead chose a lose-lose plan, forfeiting 5 bonuses and taking 50 from the Eagles. “This policy harmed everyone and made the bonus distribution more unequal,” the researchers point out.

In a final twist, the researchers presented study participants with side-by-side scenarios that would either reduce or increase inequality without affecting their bonuses, so they could easily compare. They still perceived the equity-enhancing policy as harming their chances.


The findings shed new light on one of the foundational theories of social psychology, social identity theory, which posits that people tend to prefer relatively greater amounts of resources be allocated to their in-group than to an out-group. This preference is predicted by the misperception that reductions of relative advantage necessarily harm advantaged groups in absolute terms, according to the researchers.

Beyond theory, the findings are troubling given the massive social and economic costs of inequality, Brown says. Lost GDP from racial inequality has been estimated at $16 trillion, and the gender pay gap is estimated to reduce the global economy by about $160 trillion. People may fundamentally misunderstand how much disparities weigh down society as a whole, the researchers suggest.

This zero-sum view of equality is a roadblock that policy makers seeking to reduce disparities will need to grapple with, Brown says.

“Our research suggests that you can’t expect everyone to be on board and you should always expect there’s going to be a backlash,” he says. “The change itself has to be the justification.”

Researcher Contact: Derek Brown,

Media Relations: Laura Counts,, (510) 643-9977

More Information: 

“If you rise, I fall: Equality is prevented by the misperception that it harms advantaged groups”
N. Derek Brown, Drew S. Jacoby-Senghor, Isaac Raymundo
Science Advances, May 6, 2022
DOI 10.1126/sciadv.abm2385

Haas team honored at Investing in Inclusion Pitch Competition

MBA students hold large checks.
MBA teams from top business school around the world competed in EGAL’s Investing in Inclusion Pitch.

MBA teams competed for top prizes at the 5th annual Investing in Inclusion Pitch Competition last Friday, pitching ideas to address issues of exclusion, marginalization, and belonging at the workplace and beyond.

The event was held in Chou Hall’s Spieker Forum and was organized by the Center for Equity, Gender and Leadership (EGAL).

The Berkeley Haas team, Firstly, pitched a virtual mentorship program that aims to help first-generation college students with on-campus recruitment and internship placement. The team tied for second place and won $5,000 in prize money.

Team members included Kevin Hu, Divya Vijapurapu, Elle Wisnicki, all MBA 22; Austin Long, MBA 23; Stacey Li, BA 15, and Leanne Do, BA 19 (both from UC Irvine).

Other winning teams included:

First place: Innerlytic
Innerlytic offers an online assessment tool that helps people detect their inner-biases. The team included Jordan Rose, MBA 22, (Yale School of Management) and Vernae Rahman-Smith, MSW 20, (Howard University). The team won $8,000.

Second place: Firstly and Paraventures
Paraventures provides outdoor excursions for people with disabilities. Team members included Yosuke Ochiai, Cassandra Christian, and Vincenzo Morla, all MBA 22, from IE Business School in Madrid, Spain. Firstly and Paraventures each won $5,000 in prize money.

Third place: Nema
Nema is an AI and natural language processing (NLP) tool that aims to help businesses better understand and reach multicultural audiences. Team members included Mbere Monjok, Keyaira Lock Adewunmi, Braylong Gurnell, Carmen Del Valle, all MBA 23, from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. The team won $2,000 in prize money.

The competition truly embodies the Berkeley Haas Defining Leadership Principles, said Genevieve Smith, associate director of EGAL. “Our hope is that this competition will help move the needle forward in creating a more equitable society for all,” she said.

“Competitions like these are changing the way people are valued at work and how they show up at work,” said Ulili Onovakpuri, who served as one of the judges and is a partner at venture capital firm Kapor Capital. “Companies are beginning to prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion issues and are changing organizational structures.”

Dr. Élida Bautista: ‘Why Black History Month continues to be necessary to our collective learning’

A message to the Haas community from Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer Élida Bautista on the significance of Black History Month.

Lexi Watson, 10, of Flint, Mich., smiles as she shouts out with joy with Amethyst, an elite dance company, while marching in one of two Juneteenth parades in June 2021 in downtown Flint. (Jake May | Jake May
Elida Bautista
Élida Bautista, Chief DEI Officer at Haas

Every February, the U.S. marks Black History Month to celebrate the unique contributions and achievements of African Americans and the Black community in the creation and building of the United States.

In 1926, the historian and scholar Dr. Carter G. Woodson sought to encourage the teaching of Black history in public schools and became the driving force behind the first Negro History Week. It would be celebrated during the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the Black statesman, intellectual and formerly enslaved man who became a leader in the fight to end slavery. The timing was an intentional signal by Woodson to underscore both Black excellence and the role of allies. Following a grassroots movement that stretched across decades and college campuses, President Ford in 1976 provided federal recognition that Black History is American History. 

As I reflect on the legacy of this month, I think of the significant impact and imprint made by those who influenced my personal and academic journey, whether as mentors or as researchers, and whose theories continue to inform my work.

We also see the impact in the research coming from our Haas faculty. A new study co-authored by Associate Professor Amir Kermani identifies the deeply structural reasons why Blacks and Latinos profit less from homeownership than whites; two studies by Assistant Professor Drew Jacoby-Senghor and PhD student Derek Brown found that people inadvertently signal prejudice in the language they choose, and that members of the majority misperceive even “win-win” diversity policies as harming them. A study co-authored by Assistant Professor Conrad Miller showed that racial profiling in traffic stops not only causes harm, but makes police less effective. 

As I reflect on the legacy of this month, I think of the significant impact and imprint made by those who influenced my personal and academic journey

We all gain from those who boldly name their experiences of exclusion and marginalization. We owe much to those who propose pathways toward liberation and empowerment, recognizing our collective responsibility and mutual benefit as we progress toward equality. 

Right now, we are seeing why Black History Month continues to be necessary to our collective learning and understanding. From the challenges to voting rights to the calls to restrict schools from teaching about our nation’s racial past, we are constantly reminded of the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” Contributions by leaders, inventors, and cultural icons across a variety of industries continue to be overlooked, omitted from our typical education and public discourse and, at times, vilified. On the first day of this Black History Month, at least 13 historically Black colleges and universities reported bomb threats.

From the challenges to voting rights to the calls to restrict schools from teaching about our nation’s racial past, we are constantly reminded of the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

As you make time to reflect on this heritage month, you will find that the Black community has not only shaped U.S. history and culture, but also global movements. Regardless of your personal identity, my hope for you is that you will find the points of connection in your own journey.

Throughout the month, we encourage you to engage in your own self-directed learning or take advantage of the offerings by Haas students and staff, the Cal Black Alumni Association, and campus to honor the month. The Black Staff Faculty Organization, in partnership with the Haas DEI team, will be co-sponsoring virtual tours of the Black History 101 Mobile Museum throughout the month, with a special lecture planned February 14 from museum curator Dr. Khalid el-Hakim on “The 5th Element of Hip Hop: Using Artifacts to Teach Black History.” Click here to register. 

For the Black community, this month creates an opportunity to feel seen and celebrated, and to come together in joy to restore health and wellness, the theme of Black History Month this year. In her message to campus, Dania Matos, UC Berkeley’s Vice Chancellor for Equity & Inclusion, underscored the value of the Fannie Lou Hamer Black Resource Center as a space for community building. One of the center’s offerings is The Well, “where Black folx come to heal,” along with other programming to serve you throughout the year. Here’s to Black History Month, and to Black Futures!

Study: What if you knew how much your boss makes?

A hand holds up a bundle of dollars while many other hands do the same in the background
Credit: RapidEye for iStock/Getty Images

More states are requiring employers to disclose information about their workers’ salaries with the hope it will reduce gender and racial pay gaps. But increasing pay transparency can also have some surprising impacts on worker productivity, according to a new large-scale study that is the first to examine how employees respond when they find out how much both their peers and bosses make.

The study, co-authored by Assoc. Prof. Ricardo Perez-Truglia, asked over 2,000 employees at a large commercial bank in Southeast Asia to guess their peers’ and managers’ salaries, then monitored their work habits after they were given the salary information. The main findings: Employees became less productive when they discovered their peers were making more money than they thought, but they worked harder when they discovered their bosses were earning more than they estimated.

“It was not uncommon for employees to find out that some of their bosses got paid three, four, five times as much as they do, sometimes 20 times as much,” said Perez-Truglia, whose study is forthcoming in the Journal of Political Economy. “What shocked us was that when you compared yourself to your peers, small pay differences demotivate you. But when you find out your bosses make an obscene amount more than you make, you don’t care. If anything, you become more productive.”

The productivity boost was strongest for manager positions that were just a few promotions away from an employee’s current job, but the effect faded when it came to high-level, unattainable positions. This suggests workers believe, “If I work hard and get promoted, I will get paid an obscene amount myself,” Perez-Truglia said.

He and co-author Zoë Cullen of Harvard Business School also found that employees were better at guessing peer pay than manager pay. Employees also wanted the company to release more salary information—as long as it wasn’t their own.

The researchers did not study pay disparities by race or gender, but said their evidence relates to the growing debate on pay transparency laws. “There is a widespread view that forcing firms to be more transparent would reduce pay inequality,” they wrote. “Our findings suggest that these policies may be effective, but in a narrow sense: While transparency may pressure firms to reduce horizontal inequality (between peers), employees are unlikely to exert the same pressure to reduce vertical inequality (between employees and managers), which constitutes the bulk of pay inequality.”

The experiment

The research was conducted at an unidentified Southeast Asian bank in 2017, when Cullen was working there as chief economist. The researchers asked employees to guess the average base salaries of their managers and peers. Then, they conducted an experiment: half of the subjects, selected at random, would get to see an estimate of how much their peers or managers actually get paid.

The researchers then measured the behavior of these employees for 90 days after they saw, or did not see, what others were making. They found that employees worked harder–spending more hours at work, sending more emails from their company account and making more sales—when they found out their managers earned more than they thought. But those who found out their peers made more than they had estimated slacked off.

For example, they estimated that a 10% increase in manager salary over what employees had guessed increased the average hours employees worked by 1.5%, while a 10% increase in peer salary over what employees had guessed reduced the hours they worked by 9.4%.

The end of the survey included questions related to employee morale, such as job and pay satisfaction, and attitudes toward pay inequality. “When we tell them their peers get paid more, they say inequality is an issue. But when we tell them their bosses get paid more, they say they don’t care,” Perez-Truglia said.

On average, employees underestimated their bosses’ salaries by about 14%, but when it came to their peers’ pay, about half guessed too high and half guessed too low.

Would companies benefit?

Finding out how much peers earn “would positively affect some people and negatively affect some people,” with the net result for the company being about zero. “They cancel each other out,” Perez-Truglia said. Disclosing manager pay, however, would have a small positive impact on productivity.

On balance, the researchers concluded that companies and their employees could benefit from greater pay transparency.

Their results are consistent with previous research that found employees become demotivated when they find out their peers make more than they do. A 2012 study of University of California employees by UC Berkeley economists David Card, Emmanuel Saez, and Enrico Moretti along with Alexandre Mas of Princeton University showed that employees who found out they were earning less than the median for their unit were less satisfied with their job and more likely to look for a new one, while above-median earners were unaffected.

This new study is the first to look at the impact on employees who discover their boss’ pay, Perez-Truglia said.

He and Cullen also found that employees were hungry for salary information, and many were willing to “pay” for it. In the experiment, some employees gave up a chance to win almost $200 to see their boss’ or peers’ salaries. Employees may feel they need pay information “to decide whether to work harder to get promoted, or to use it as a bargaining chip in future salary negotiations,” they wrote.

Separately, in response to two survey questions, 65% of the employees said they would like their company to disclose to all employees the same type of average pay data provided in the experiment. However, 75% opposed disclosing everyone’s exact salary. “One plausible interpretation,” the authors wrote, “is that while employees value the salary information a lot, they may value their privacy even more.”