Hierarchy in the eye of the beholder: (Anti-)egalitarianism shapes perceived levels of social inequality

Nour S. Kteily*, Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington, Arnold K. Ho

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

87 Scopus citations


Debate surrounding the issue of inequality and hierarchy between social groups has become increasingly prominent in recent years. At the same time, individuals disagree about the extent to which inequality between advantaged and disadvantaged groups exists. Whereas prior work has examined the ways in which individuals legitimize (or delegitimize) inequality as a function of their motivations, we consider whether individuals' orientation toward group-based hierarchy motivates the extent to which they perceive inequality between social groups in the first place. Across 8 studies in both real-world (race, gender, and class) and artificial contexts, and involving members of both advantaged and disadvantaged groups, we show that the more individuals endorse hierarchy between groups, the less they perceive inequality between groups at the top and groups at the bottom. Perceiving less inequality is associated with rejecting egalitarian social policies aimed at reducing it. We show that these differences in hierarchy perception as a function of individuals' motivational orientation hold even when inequality is depicted abstractly using images, and even when individuals are financially incentivized to accurately report their true perceptions. Using a novel methodology to assess accurate memory of hierarchy, we find that differences may be driven by both antiegalitarians underestimating inequality, and egalitarians overestimating it. In sum, our results identify a novel perceptual bias rooted in individuals' chronic motivations toward hierarchy-maintenance, with the potential to influence their policy attitudes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)136-159
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of personality and social psychology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017


  • Egalitarianism
  • Hierarchy
  • Inequality
  • Motivated cognition
  • Social dominance orientation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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