Robert Gore-Langton in the Spectator (£) writes:
Simon Williams, star of the original Upstairs, Downstairs, once observed that the caterers and film crew treated the show’s upstairs cast much more deferentially than they did the downstairs skivvies.
This is an example of priming; people’s behaviour is unconsciously affected by cues. For example, an experiment at New York University found (pdf) that students primed with words associated with old age subsequently walked more slowly than others.
Such priming can often lead to deference, as the Upstairs, Downstairs case shows. In Influence, Robert Cialdini gives other examples of this. People who were asked to give loose change to a stranger were much more likely to do so if the requester were dressed as a security guard than if he were dressed ordinarily; pedestrians were more likely to follow a jaywalker wearing a smart business suit than one wearing casual clothes; motorists were quicker to honk their horns at drivers of cheap cars than expensive ones. In another experiment, people were shown a video of a child playing and judged here to be more intelligent if she were in an affluent neighbourhood than a poor one, even though her behaviour was the same in both.
The mere symbols of authority or wealth, says Cialdini, trigger an automatic “click, whirr” of deference. This can, of course, be positively dangerous - as Stanley Milgram’s notorious experiment showed. Cialdini corroborates this, pointing to an experiment in which nurses were prepared to give dangerous overdoses of drugs to patients if asked to do so over the phone by someone claiming to be a doctor.
Priming, though, is by no means the only way in which people come to accept arbitrary inequality. There are other mechanisms.
One is stereotype threat. People tend to live up or down to stereotypes. The Oak school experiments show that pupils arbitrarily deemed to have high IQ subsequently did better at school. And other experiments show that American blacks (pdf) or low-caste Indians can easily be primed to do badly on intellectual tests, thus living down to their stereotype, even though their performance on the same tests in slightly different contexts is good. It might then look as if some people “deserve” to do well and others badly because of differences in ability, even if these differences are endogenous.
Another mechanism is adaptive preferences. If you’re unemployed and think there’s no work available, you might cease to want to work. But if you’re in a job and get a promotion even at random, you might come think that hard work pays off, and so you’ll work harder. Some people will thus seem lazy and undeserving and others hard-working and deserving. But their preferences might be the result of their position, not the cause.
A further mechanism is simple path dependence. If we were to randomly assign some people to managerial tasks requiring intellectual effort and others to routine manual work, the intellectual abilities of the former would improve through use and practice whilst those of the latter would atrophy. Bosses would then appear to justify their position by their superior intellect, even though this is effect, not cause. “Leadership skills” - in the rare cases where they genuinely exist - might be the result of people occupying leadership positions, not the cause.
There are, then, powerful psychological mechanisms which can cause unjust or random inequalities to become accepted, even if - as in Milgram's example - they are positively dangerous. And I haven’t even mentioned the just world illusion, status quo bias or plain vested interest. The fact that people tolerate inequality is, therefore, no evidence of its justice or efficacy.