Americans’ perceptions of income inequality are largely over-inflated when compared with actual census data, according to new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
“With the genuine rise in wealth inequality over the past several decades, and the popular media’s intensive coverage of this issue, we wondered how income inequality is perceived by the average American,” says psychological scientist John Chambers of St. Louis University.
Chambers, along with Lawton Swan and Martin Heesacker of the University of Florida, wanted to resolve conflicting findings in previous research about whether people are able to accurately assess income and income inequality.
Over 500 participants responded to the researchers’ online survey, answering questions about their political leanings, their estimates of annual incomes for different racial groups in America, and their perceptions about overall income inequality in the United States.
Participants tended to overestimate the number of American households that are just scraping by, believing that, on average, about 48% of households make less than $35,000 a year. Census data show that only 37% actually fall under that number. By contrast, participants underestimated the number of American households that are faring well. They believed that, on average, only about 23% of households make $75,000 or greater a year, when census data show that 32% actually make more than that number.