TBT Our SPSP 2015 Symposium on Economic Mobility and Inequality

Back in 2015, when I was a second year Master’s student I co-chaired a symposium at the annual Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) conference with Shai Davidai. In short, across three great talks given by Drs. Mike Norton and Shai Davidai, as well as myself, we covered:

High economic inequality is often justified by the belief in social mobility, the possibility that anyone can increase their economic standing through hard work. Three speakers discuss new research on subjective perceptions of inequality and social mobility, and the how these perceptions impact emotional well-being.

We were lucky enough to have videographers at SPSP film each of the talks and post them on youtube. So, I thought I would archive them here with their abstracts. Take a trip back to SPSP of (almost) four years ago (!!) and see some of the cutting edge work on economic inequality and mobility.

Dr. Mike Norton

Mike’s talk was titled “How Much (More) Should CEOs Make? A Universal Desire for More Equal Pay” and was based on this paper. Here is the abstract for the talk:

We assess people's preferred wage differentials between rich and poor, and determine whether these ideal ratios are commonly-held. Using survey data from 40 countries (N = 55,238), we compare respondents' estimates of the actual wages of chief executive officers and unskilled workers to their ideals for what those wages should be. We show that ideal pay gaps between CEOs and unskilled workers are significantly smaller than estimated pay gaps, and that there is consensus across countries, socioeconomic status, and political beliefs for ideal pay ratios. Moreover, data from 16 countries reveals that people dramatically underestimate actual  pay inequality. In the United States the actual pay ratio of CEOs to unskilled workers (354:1) far exceeded the estimated ratio (30:1) which in turn far exceeded the ideal ratio (7:1). People underestimate pay gaps, and their ideal pay gaps are even further from reality than their erroneous underestimates.

Dr. Shai Davidai

Shai’s talk was titled “Building a More Mobile America – One Income Quintile at a Time” and was based on this paper. Here is the abstract for the talk:

A core tenet of the American ethos is that there is considerable economic mobility. Americans seem willing to accept vast financial inequalities as long as they believe that everyone has the opportunity to succeed. We examined whether people’s beliefs about the amount of economic mobility in the United States conform to reality. In a nationally representative sample (N=3,034), we found that: (1) people believe there is more upward mobility than downward mobility, (2) people overestimate the amount of upward mobility and underestimate the amount of downward mobility and (3) poorer individuals believe there is more mobility than richer ones. An additional study (N=290) replicated these results and found that political affiliation influences perceptions of mobility, with conservatives believing that the economic system is more dynamic than liberals do. We discuss these findings in terms of system justification theory and consider the implications for contemporary political debates in the United States.


My talk was titled “Belief in high social mobility and emotional well-being” and was based on the work that became my Master’s Thesis. Here is the abstract for the talk:

The American Dream posits that anyone can move between income levels, but recent reports document that income mobility is at an all-time low (Chetty, Hendren, Kline, & Saez, 2013). High levels of income mobility may offer economic advantages, but does perceived mobility impact well-being? Past research provides conflicting hypotheses, suggesting both positive and negative well-being outcomes (Diener, Lucas, & Oishi, 2002; Smith, Loewenstein, Jankovic, & Ubel, 2009). In Study 1(n=100) participants who believed they had higher income mobility reported higher positive affect and life satisfaction. In Study 2 (n=456) participants randomly assigned to read about high (vs. low) income mobility reported higher positive, and lower negative, affect. In Study 3 (n=435) we replicated Study 2 in a nationally representative sample. Across all three studies emotional benefits persisted regardless of the participants’ income level. These findings suggest there are emotional benefits to perceiving high income mobility, regardless of current economic standing.

The End!

And that’s it for our 2015 symposium! I hope you enjoyed! Please feel free to reach out if you have any questions!

Bonus: I chaired another symposium on inequality at SPSP 2017. An undergraduate student writer wrote a post about Shai’s talk on “The Great Gatsby Curve” here.

Dylan Wiwad
Dylan Wiwad
Quantitative Social Scientist

Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.