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Underestimating Wealth Inequality

Underestimating Wealth Inequality

What are people’s perceptions about estimated, desirable and actual levels of economic inequality? Behavioral economist Dan Ariely from Duke University and Michael Norton from Harvard Business School conducted a survey of ~5,500 respondents across the United States to find out. Their survey asked questions about wealth inequality (as compared to income inequality), also known as net worth, essentially the value of all things owned minus all things owed (assets minus debt).

Addendum 3/9/2013: A recently posted 6min video illustrating these findings went viral (4 million+ views). It is worth watching:

The authors published the paper here and Dan Ariely blogged about it here in Sep 2010. One of the striking results is summarized in this chart of the wealth distribution across five quintiles:

From their Legend:

The actual United States wealth distribution plotted against the estimated and ideal distributions across all respondents. Because of their small percentage share of total wealth, both the ‘‘4th 20%’’ value (0.2%) and the ‘‘Bottom 20%’’ value (0.1%) are not visible in the ‘‘Actual’’ distribution.

It turned out that most respondents described a fairly equal distribution as the ideal – something similar to the wealth distribution in a country like Sweden. They estimated – correctly – that the U.S. has higher levels of wealth inequality. However, they nevertheless grossly underestimated the actual inequality, which is far higher still. Especially the bottom two quintiles are almost non-existent in the actual distribution. There was much more consensus than disagreement across groups from different sides of the political spectrum about this. From the current policy debates one would not have expected that. They go on to ask the question:

Given the consensus among disparate groups on the gap between an ideal distribution of wealth and the actual level of wealth inequality, why are more Americans, especially those with low income, not advocating for greater redistribution of wealth?

In the last chapter of their paper the authors offer several explanations of this phenomenon. One of them is the observation that the apparent drastic under-estimation of the degree of inequality seems to reveal a lack of awareness of the size of the gap. This is something that Data Visualization and interactive charts can help address. For example, Catherine Mulbrandon’s Blog Visualizing Economics does a great job in that regard.

The authors go on to look at other aspects from the perspective of psychology and behavioral economics. While fascinating in its own right, this excursion is beyond the scope of my Data Visualization Blog. They conclude their paper with general observations

…suggesting that even given increased awareness of the gap between ideal and actual wealth distributions, Americans may remain unlikely to advocate for policies that would narrow this gap.

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2011 in Socioeconomic

 

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