The conversation about economic inequality in the United States is one we need to be having. The disparities between those who have the most and those who have the least just keep growing. And although people recognize the realities of wealth inequalities, they vastly underestimate it.
For example, when researchers have asked the general population about racial economic equality, respondents believe we’ve made way more progress than we actually have (primarily because they believe the current situation is more equitable than it actually is).
But when you try to talk to people with wealth and power, the conversation doesn’t always go well.
Feeling Threatened by Advantage
The challenge baked into talking about inequality is how defensive it can make people. “Are you saying I don’t deserve what I have? I never tried to hurt anyone. Don’t blame this on me!”
A lot of the research on this has focused on racial inequalities. For example, I’ve written before about research showing that when White people read about the existence of White privilege, they all of a sudden become focused on the hardships that they’ve endured in their lives. Other studies show that information about White privilege makes White respondents feel guilty.
But some recent research has turned the focus onto social class in general. For instance, when students at an elite university read about class privilege, they also went on to highlight more of their personal hardships. Once again, people defensively embrace notions of a meritocracy in order to feel comfortable with their relatively advantaged place in society.
Framing the Issue the Right Way
Once again, the challenge in discussing inequality is getting past people’s defensive reactions to the privileges that support them. So what can we do to more effectively communicate about these issues?
Drs. Pia Dietze and Maureen Craig wanted to see what kinds of messages are persuasive when it comes to getting people to support action to address economic inequality. In a new set of studies, they tested two types of messages: ones that emphasized the disadvantages of belonging to a lower social class versus ones that emphasized the advantages of belonging to a higher social class.
Technically, the information is the same in each case. It’s just that it’s framed differently.
For example, one version of the message highlights how the “budgets of public schools in lower-class neighborhoods are 3 times lower.” But the other version of the message instead highlights how the “budgets of public schools in upper-class neighborhoods are 3 times higher.” Same information, but seen from different perspectives.
Again and again, they found that people supported taking action to address economic inequality more when the message focused on lower class disadvantage. When people read this version of the message, they saw inequality as more unjust, which is at least partly why that message more effectively calls people to action.
To push the idea even further, they ran different Facebook ads to see which ones got more online attention. After running for 24 hours, according to Facebook’s own algorithms, the post that emphasized lower class disadvantage was more successful than the one emphasizing upper class advantage.
Talk About Inequality as “Lower Class Disadvantage”
Overall, these new studies show that framing inequality in terms of the disadvantages experienced by people in lower social classes seems to be the more effective strategy. When it comes to people’s openness to taking action – sharing messages, attending protests, supporting government programs – it helps to shift the focus away upper class advantages and focuses more on lower class disadvantages, which is the part that people find truly unjust.
These studies included responses from all sorts of people. Some used methods to get a representative sample of people in the United States. Others used social media platforms that are used constantly. And when they specifically looked at people’s own social class and political views, they didn’t see much evidence that it mattered. Instead, the “lower class disadvantage” messages seemed to be more effective across the board.
Of course, this is just one link in the chain of actually addressing economic inequality, but it’s one that activists and communicators should take note of. Even if these choices make only a small difference, those small differences can add up as messages sweep across a society.