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Attitudes Toward Economic Inequality: The Illusory Agreement

Recent studies of attitudes toward economic inequality suggest that most people around the world prefer very low levels of inequality, despite well-known trends toward greater inequality within many countries. Even within countries, people across the political spectrum are said to be in remarkable agreement about the ideal level of economic inequality. Using survey data from 40 countries and a novel survey experiment in the United States, we show that this apparent agreement is illusory. When relying on a widely used cross-national survey measure of Ideal Pay Ratios, preferred levels of inequality are heavily influenced by two well-documented sources of perceptual distortion: the anchoring effect and ratio bias. These effects are substantial and many times larger than the influence of fundamental political predispositions. As a result, these cross-national survey measures tapping preferences regarding economic inequality produce misleading conclusions about desired levels of inequality.