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Americans tend to believe in meritocracy when it comes to famous billionaires, but not their rich buddies

Figures like Warren Buffett and Oprah Winfrey are seen as having earned their wealth, while the ultrarich, as a class, are viewed less favorably.

Americans tend to believe in meritocracy when it comes to famous billionaires, but not their rich buddies
[Source Images: francescoch/iStock; sokur/iStock]

There are legions of fans who worship wealthy figures like Warren Buffett and Oprah Winfrey, but good luck finding a soul who would throw themselves on the altar of the prestigious 1% club.

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According to new research from Cornell University and Ohio State University, that’s partly because the idea of extravagant wealth is more easily stomached in small doses. When considering an individual billionaire—say, computer magnate Sergey Brin or Larry Ellison—people are more likely to view their lavish riches as fairly earned and well deserved, the fruits of talent, ingenuity, and hard work.

However, the same does not hold true for the nebulous vision of an ultrarich top 1%, or “economic elite.” When confronted with the concept of a wealthy upper stratosphere as a whole, people were more likely to attribute enormous net worth to “systemic advantages that have contributed to decades of widening income inequality in the United States.”

Researchers gleaned this mentality from a set of surveys involving nearly 3,000 respondents. They also found people were less supportive of higher taxes on wealth or inheritance when it was presented in the context of one successful individual, and more supportive when it came to a cohort of richies. According to Cornell psychology professor Thomas Gilovich, a coauthor of the study, that’s because when you think about wealth traveling in packs, “you think about the system being rigged, the privileges they have.”

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In fact, every single respondent was troubled by the fact that CEO salaries at the country’s 350 biggest companies have grown to 372 times that of the typical worker—but those assigned to consider the CEO of a specific company believed that leader should earn a much higher multiple of the typical worker than those who considered a whole class of chief executives.

The study’s authors suggest this is because we have an innate tendency to see internal traits—talent, intelligence, drive—as more responsible for individual successes and failures versus those of a group. There’s also the “streaking star effect,” a term used to describe how crowds are more inspired by the success of an individual than the success of a team.

Of course, scholars say that’s just a fallacy—but it still has implications for income inequality policymaking. “If you want to change the system,” says Gilovich, “you’ve got to make people think in systemic terms.”

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