Research highlight

Human behaviour: Observing inequality increases support for taxing wealthy individuals


September 24, 2020

People from low-income neighbourhoods in South Africa are more likely to demand taxes on wealthy individuals when physical reminders of inequality are present, research in this week’s Nature suggests. As financial disparities are ubiquitous in unequal societies, the study offers important insights into the conditions that prompt people who are less wealthy to take action against social inequalities.

Surveys and laboratory studies have shown that people change their behaviour when they are presented with information about inequality. They may, for example, become less generous or cooperative. However, less is known about the response of an individual to reminders of inequality in the real world.

Melissa Sands and Daniel de Kadt investigated whether the presence of a luxury car influenced people’s opinions about taxing the wealthy. In their study, a native South African person conducted a petition on busy streets in low-income neighbourhoods in Soweto, South Africa. Pedestrians were asked to sign a petition: some participants were shown a petition to increase taxation on wealthy individuals and others were shown one to replace nuclear power with alternative energy sources. The authors found that the presence of the car boosted support for the wealth tax, but also suppressed the willingness to engage in petition-signing. They report an 11 percentage point increase in signatures for the tax petition in the presence of the car, once the suppressive effect is accounted for. Overall, when the car was present, passers-by were much less likely to sign the nuclear power petition, but no less likely to sign the tax petition than in the control condition.

“Sands and de Kadt’s study shows that everyday reminders of inequality spur people on to acts of resistance,” say Colin Tredoux and John Dixon in an accompanying News and Views article. When people who are less wealthy are nudged, they are more inclined towards normative protest, such as calls for taxation, which are regulated by the government. Whether this contributes meaningfully to lasting change has yet to be determined.

doi: 10.1038/s41586-020-2763-1

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