Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

High SES Against Redistribution

  • Damião S. de Almeida SegundoEmail author
  • Roger S. Sousa
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_1701-1



Individuals with higher socioeconomic status (SES) tend to be against the distribution of resources, aiming at securing advantages over others.


Status emerged as an evolutionary solution consisting of the establishment of simple rules to avoid and resolve conflicts in hierarchical groups. In the environments of forage societies, acquisition and sharing of resources were key issues for the survival of individuals and groups. Thus, the process of cooperation and competition was a determinant of survival. Within social groups, these processes of exchange of resources could generate competition or hostility, culminating in conflicts between group members. To avoid this costly relationship, many species of primates have developed ways to minimize possible social conflict by imposing simple systems to determine access and control over scarce resources, such as the concept of status. In modern societies, individuals with high socioeconomic status (SES) tend to oppose resource redistribution. The explanation for this opposition to economic redistribution derives from adaptive cognitive and motivational mechanisms that were selected in the evolutionary process to solve resource allocation problems (Kurzban and Neuberg 2005; Sidanius and Kurzban 2013; Sznycer et al. 2017).

Redistribution and Status

In modern times, redistribution refers to the change in the distribution of resources in a population resulting from a political process. As in other decision-making processes, support for redistribution occurs through the processing of specialized computational systems of human cognitive architecture. It is necessary to understand the evolutionary origins of the motivational processes that result in opposition or support for redistribution. For example, among primates, dominant males generally have more control over scarce resources, including partners, increasing the likelihood of reproductive success (e.g., greater chance of survival for offspring, more offspring; Kappeler and van Schaik 2002). The same is true for dominant females, as status positively affects their nutrition, which increases their likelihood of reproductive success. That is, resource management impacts on the survival and reproductive success of individuals, so sharing or distributing is an adaptive problem.

Differences in access, control, and redistribution of resources can motivate conflicts. Status and hierarchy relationships are dynamic, and disadvantaged groups can get organized to force redistribution of resources. In the same way, dominant groups or individuals can come together to secure their position within a social hierarchy. Then, status emerges as a strategy for hierarchical classification within groups, signaling access to social (individual or group) and economic resources. This strategy creates implicit social rules about the distribution of resources, with the function of avoiding or minimizing costs with competition and constant conflicts over scarce resources.

In modern societies, the socioeconomic status (SES) derives from this notion of status. Individuals with higher SES are those with higher levels of wealth, such as privileged access to income, education, and occupation. People with higher SES are less likely to support policies that redistribute wealth and have less favorable feelings toward economic redistribution (Brown-Iannuzzi et al. 2015). Humans balance prosocial motivations with self-promotion to deal with social hierarchy relationships (Petersen et al. 2012; Sznycer et al. 2017). Even in scenarios in which cooperative relationships are necessary for group survival, sharing arises only as a form of maintenance of the type of resource distribution. Cooperation through controlled resource distribution functions as a strategy for self-promotion and building alliances or coalitions (Kurzban and Neuberg 2005). Social badges, such as speech or dress code, are used to assess the extent to which others are expected to cooperate in promoting group interests. These cues act as markers that guide the selection of alliances or coalitions by creating a behavioral expectation through the share of common social norms. Thus, individuals promote self-interest and, at the same time, reduce the social costs of coercive or dominant strategies through prosocial gestures.

Motivations for Redistribution

Humans have interacted with individuals with varying levels of access to resources or SES throughout evolution, and our motivational systems may have been naturally selected to deal with the challenges and opportunities arising from these social relationships. Therefore, the personal standpoint on the redistribution of income and wealth among human beings permeates often unnoticed aspects. For example, in men, physical strength shapes the support for redistribution (Petersen et al. 2013). Among men with lower SES, physical strength predicts support for redistribution and among men of higher SES, the opposite. This is probably because physical strength is a relevant aspect of the ability to fight. Individuals with higher fighting ability will tend to acquire or defend resources rather than less skillful competitors. As personal strength is irrelevant to compensate for economic policies in modern societies, one can conjecture that decision-making on redistribution is shaped by a psychology designed by evolution for small groups. Among human, relations of cooperation, such as sharing of resources, occur mainly between individuals with some degree of kinship. It commonly occurs as a partner attraction/retention strategy or to form/preserve status (White et al. 2013).

Our ancestors were constantly in social situations where they had to solve problems, among others, related to the distribution of resources. The human mind was designed by evolution to seek clues and to provide emotional responses to evolutionarily recurring challenges and opportunities regarding the social distribution of resources (Sznycer et al. 2017). For example, humans are more motivated to share when they are subject to chance-driven interruptions and less motivated when they think they are being exploited by low-effort free riders. The motivation to share with nongenetically close individuals has evolved as a defense mechanism against opportunists, low-effort free riders. Petersen et al. (2012) found anger and compassion as the main motivators of these mechanisms. Encountering individuals who accept help without contributing, such as intentional avoidance of a productive effort (i.e., parasitic strategies), triggers anger and decreases support. The subjects’ perceptions of the recipient’s effort (e.g., search for work) regulate compassion and anger which in turn mediate views about well-being. To corroborate this assertion, a research conducted by Kim and Lee (2018) analyzed data from 28 countries and identified that the perception of inequality of opportunity is a potential moderator of attitudes toward redistribution for people at all SES levels. There is an expectation that opportunities can be equal and thus the acquisition of resources would be based on individual efforts in a fair competition.

In this way, individuals with higher SES can interpret redistribution policies as a way to benefit subjects using parasitic strategies, while lower SES are less prone to this interpretation precisely because they have less access to resources. It is only in a scenario where it is explicit that the conditions of opportunity are unequal that subjects of higher SES could support policies of redistribution.

Still, other factors must be considered. A study conducted by Sznycer et al. (2017) mapped the motivations that shape attitudes toward redistribution. For this, they started from the premise that modern redistribution is perceived as an ancestral scene involving three actors: the other in need, the other in a better situation, and the actor himself. This scene would be the central aspect in the individual understanding of redistribution in modernity. The motivation to accept redistribution would then be shaped by a mixture of humanitarian and resentful motives foreseen by this ancestral game model. The motivations that predicted support for redistribution were compassion, envy, and self-interest. Although justice is central to many of the arguments for redistribution, it has had little or no effect on support for it. Thus, individuals with higher SES faced with this ancestral scene would be led more by the motivations of envy and self-interest rather than compassion or justice. Another motivational aspect that can help explain why people with higher SES tend to be against redistribution is social dominance. From this perspective, individuals would have evolved to achieve and maintain social dominance over other groups (Sidanius and Kurzban 2013). In order to favor group superiority, it is necessary to accumulate resources and resist redistribution.


In general, individuals with higher SES tend to oppose measures of economic redistribution. This is due to a series of cognitive and motivational mechanisms shaped by evolution to solve problems related to the distribution of resources in forage societies. In modern times, these systems end up reflecting individual attitudes about redistribution (e.g., anger, compassion, self-interest). In addition, status, by creating a stable system to distribute scarce resources without constant conflict, is considered to be adaptive. At the individual level, it guarantees access to resources; and at the group level, while creating inequalities, hierarchy provides stability for cooperative relations without open, constant, and widespread competition among group members. Therefore, individuals in a privileged position tend to wish for the permanence of the distribution of resources and oppose redistribution policies. For, in evolutionary terms, it is advantageous for individuals of higher SES to maintain the social hierarchy, both at the individual and group level.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Damião S. de Almeida Segundo
    • 1
    Email author
  • Roger S. Sousa
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyFederal University of Rio Grande do SulPorto AlegreBrazil
  2. 2.Federal University of CearáFortalezaBrazil

Section editors and affiliations

  • Kevin Beaver
    • 1
  1. 1.Florida State UniversityTallahasseeUSA