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Think Out Loud

Inequality: Perceptions and Reality

Pete Springer/OPB

Over the last few weeks, we’ve explored a few different angles on the subject of inequality. We started with a conversation about defining inequality. Then came a look at various disparities around Oregon. The third installment focused on HIV/AIDS. For the next show in this series, we’ll dig into how Americans think about inequality, and what they say they’d like to do about it.

Our guest will be Michael Norton, a professor at Harvard Business School who has studied Americans’ perceptions of wealth distribution. As he wrote in the New York Times:

In a recent survey of Americans, my colleague Dan Ariely and I found that Americans drastically underestimated the level of wealth inequality in the United States. While recent data indicates that the richest 20 percent of Americans own 84 percent of all wealth, people estimated that this group owned just 59 percent – believing that total wealth in this country is far more evenly divided among poorer Americans.

What’s more, when we asked them how they thought wealth should be distributed, they told us they wanted an even more equitable distribution, with the richest 20 percent owning just 32 percent of the wealth. This was true of Democrats and Republicans, rich and poor – all groups we surveyed approved of some inequality, but their ideal was far more equal than the current level.

Interestingly, even if there’s a consensus that this wealth disparity is too great, Norton has found no real consensus on how to address it.

How would you respond to Norton’s surveys? In terms of wealth distribution, how unequal is too unequal?

What would you like to ask Michael Norton about his research?

inequality psychology

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