The Rise of Merit-based Inequality Acceptance After Exposure to Competition: Experimental Evidence among Chinese University Students

  • Jacqueline Chen ChenEmail author
  • Tony Tam
  • Yen-sheng Chiang


This laboratory study examines an individual’s acceptance of distributional inequality after exposure to competition and the role of competitive intensity in this relationship among young adults in mainland China. We randomly assigned participants to tournaments with different levels of prize spread and winning selectivity, thereby engendering different levels of competitive intensity. Moreover, the lab experiment measured the participants’ preference for inequality in the distribution of tournament awards–what we call merit-based inequality acceptance. We obtained three main results. (1) Exposure to competition increases the level of inequality acceptance, and the effect of such increase tends to be great among strong performers in a tournament. (2) Exposure to competition with large prizes is positively associated with high level of inequality acceptance, whereas the relationship of winning selectivity to inequality acceptance has an inverted U shape. (3) The main source of inequality acceptance is the difference in the payoffs to strong and poor performers in a tournament. Results suggest that increasing competition intensity for economic rewards may have the unintended consequence of enhancing merit-based inequality acceptance among young Chinese university students.


Merit-based inequality acceptance Exposure to competition Distribution China 



The authors gratefully acknowledge funding support from the CUHK-CASS Joint Lab on Social Psychology, sponsored by CUHK Research Committee via the Faculty of Social Science Chinese University of Hong Kong, Guangzhou Association of Social Science “Social mentality research in new era: merit-based distribution and sense of acquisition” (No2018GZQN21) and MOE “Trend and Pattern of Chinese Social Mobility: Ethnic minorities’ educational and occupational attainments” (No. 16YJC880104).

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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jacqueline Chen Chen
    • 1
    Email author
  • Tony Tam
    • 2
  • Yen-sheng Chiang
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Sociology, School of Public ManagementSouth China Agricultural UniversityGuangzhouPeople’s Republic of China
  2. 2.Department of SociologyThe Chinese University of Hong KongHong Kong SARPeople’s Republic of China
  3. 3.Institute of SociologyAcademia SinicaTaipeiTaiwan

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