2016 Conference on Inequality and Decision Making


On August 4-5, 2016, scholars gathered at a Tobin Project conference at the Méridien Hotel in Cambridge, MA, to present and workshop innovative early-stage research exploring the effects of economic inequality on individual behavior and decision making.

Scholars from across the social sciences discussed their preliminary findings and charted the future of a research initiative on inequality and decision making, which has been described as “the most promising direction in inequality research today.” Building on foundational work already underway, the conference provided a venue for a select group of creative researchers to workshop new and ongoing research in this area and to help to define the frontier of an exciting research program committed to understanding what President Obama has called “the defining challenge of our time.”


In recent years, income inequality in the United States has reached heights not seen since the Great Depression. As inequality has risen, a national debate has emerged. Some observers characterize rising inequality as one of the greatest threats facing the nation, while others dismiss it as a natural side effect of the progress of American capitalism. Yet despite a great deal of careful work devoted to the study of economic inequality, the consequences of inequality remain poorly understood.

While previous studies have developed plausible hypotheses about inequality’s impact, there is no academic consensus on the effects of inequality. We believe that this may be in part because extant scholarship has not privileged the study of mechanisms that might explain how inequality shapes broader outcomes. In order to determine whether economic inequality has effects that are significant but too complex or subtle to detect at the macro-level, we need to first develop a deeper understanding of how inequality operates at the micro-level. Behavioral social science could play a critical role in building this understanding.

The Tobin Project has been working with a group of leading scholars on a series of experiments designed to develop our knowledge of inequality’s effects on individual decision making. Their work has taken exciting steps forward and generated lessons to inform future study. Yet many important avenues of inquiry remain unexplored. The Tobin Project organized this conference to engage a multi-disciplinary community of scholars and stimulate new work to advance and deepen this research agenda across the academy.

Conference Advisory Board

These scholars have played a critical role in shaping Tobin’s Economic Inequality initiative and developing our 2016 conference:

Nancy Adler, Lisa and John Pritzker Professor, Departments of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco
Marianne Bertrand, Chris P. Dialynas Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business
Raymond Fisman, Slater Family Professor in Behavioral Economics at Boston University
Ilyana Kuziemko, Professor of Economics at Princeton University
Wendy Berry Mendes, Sarlo/Ekman Associate Professor of Emotion at University of California, San Francisco
David Moss, Paul Whiton Cherington Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and Founder of the Tobin Project
Michael Norton, Harold M. Brierley Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School

Accepted Proposals

These proposals were deemed most promising by the Tobin Project and the Conference Advisory Board against the following criteria:

  • The relevance of the research question to the goals of the conference: Does the proposed work hold promise for advancing our understanding of how and in what contexts inequality may affect individual behavior and decision making?
  • The novelty and feasibility of the proposed study design: Does this proposal suggest a new and innovative research strategy that has a reasonable chance of success?

The Color of Welfare: The Relationship between Racialized Mental Representations of Welfare Recipients and Attitudes towards Welfare Jazmin Brown-Iannuzzi (University of Kentucky) & B. Keith Payne (UNC) 

Does Inequality Heighten Class-Based Social Cognition?
Paul Connor (UC Berkeley), Serena Chen (UC Berkeley), & Dacher Keltner (UC Berkeley) 

How Economic Inequality and Income Shape Self-Beliefs and Worldviews
Stéphane Côté (University of Toronto), Julian House (Behavioural Insights Unit), & Robb Willer (Stanford) 

Can Income Inequality and Social Mobility Affect Support for Redistribution? Martin Day (Memorial University of Newfoundland)

Beliefs about Socioeconomic Status Malleability and Financial Decision Making
Mesmin Destin (Northwestern) & Alexander Browman (Northwestern)

The Perception of Inequalities and Its Effect on Preference for Redistribution: An International Perspective
Catherine Eckel (Texas A&M), Daniel Goldstein (Microsoft Research), Philip Grossman (Monash), & Lionel Page (Queensland University of Technology) 

Buying In: Positional Competition, Schools, and Housing Consumption, 1999-2013
Adam Goldstein (Harvard) & Orestes Hastings (UC Berkeley)

Reactions to Abstract and Concrete Inequality: Equality is Desirable in the Abstract but Meritocracy is Feasible in the Concrete
Sebastian Hafenbrädl (Yale) & Jason Dana (Yale) 

Diversity and Redistributive Preferences: Evidence from a Quasi-Experiment in Colombia
Juliana Londoño Vélez (UC Berkeley)

Income Inequality, Competitive Consumption, and Consumer Debt: Exploring the "Keeping up with the Joneses" Hypothesis at the Local Level Using Micro Data
Elsa Massoc (UC Berkeley) & Shad Turney (UC Berkeley) 

Seeing is Believing: Manipulating Inequality Perceptions with Built Visual Environments

Jake Moskowitz (UC Irvine) & Paul Piff (UC Irvine)

Environmental Cues and Social-Cognitive Consequences of Economic Inequality
Paul Piff (UC Irvine) & Jake Moskowitz (UC Irvine) 

Rational Inequality: Social Class, Networks, and Local Influences on Economic Knowledge
Beth Red Bird (Stanford) & Molly King (Stanford) 

Punitive Inequity Aversion: Do Americans Want to Eat the Rich?
Azim Shariff (University of Oregon), Brett Mercier (University of Oregon), Dylan Wiwad (Simon Fraser University), Lara Aknin (Simon Fraser University), Kyoungmi Lee (Seoul National University), & Kathleen Vohs (University of Minnesota)

Antecedents and Consequences of Perceptions of Economic Inequality
Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington (London School of Economics), Oliver Hauser (Harvard), & Nour Kteily (Northwestern) 

The Life Course Influence of Economic Inequality on Individual Health and Health Behavior
Beth Truesdale (Harvard)

Inequality, Precarity, and Perceptions of Deservingness
Kris-Stella Trump (Impaq International) & Vanessa Williamson (The Brookings Institution)

Inequality and Decision Making Doctoral Student Workshop

On August 6th, 2016, the Tobin Project hosted a workshop that gathered six doctoral students conducting research on Inequality and Decision Making to discuss and receive feedback on their ongoing projects. The projects workshopped were:

Utilizing the Search Model to Empirically Test the Effect of Rising Income Inequality on the Duration of Workers’ Jobless Spells
David Cho (Princeton)

The Effect of Income Inequality on the Expression of Personal Values and Beliefs
Kimin Eom (UC Santa Barbara), Heejung Kim (UC Santa Barbara), & David Sherman (UC Santa Barbara) 

Determining Income Inequality’s Effect on Optimism about Personal Economic Opportunity
Orestes Hastings (UC Berkeley) 

Income Inequality and Structural Change
Robert Manduca (Harvard) 

Does Exposure to Inequality Change Preferences for Redistribution?
Melissa Sands (Harvard) 

Anything to Get Ahead: The Effect of Economic Inequality on Unethical Decision-Making
Daniel Stancato (UC Berkeley), Serena Chen (UC Berkeley), & Dacher Keltner (UC Berkeley)