Does Information about Economic Inequality Affect Opportunity Beliefs? Results from Survey Experiments in Post-Authoritarian Chile


Social structures in contemporary societies have undergone significant changes over the last few decades. In advanced economies, there has been an increase in socio-economic inequality and pressure to dismantle the welfare state. At this juncture of institutional change, understanding citizens' preferences about how social policies should be financed becomes crucial, as these attitudes are critical for supporting or impeding policy reforms. Several studies have examined the support for welfare policies among citizens. However, some puzzles persist in the literature. Research on the topic, especially in USA, has largely concluded that citizens are uninformed of the levels of income inequality in their societies, even when informed, it is not clear their support for redistributive policies. Furthermore, a large body of research on American Dream ideology and system justification theory assumes that these ideologies predisposes voters to put high value on individual factors as critical ways to reduce economic inequality. However, most of the studies does not consider the reverse: information about rising economic inequality may also have a negative effect on beliefs about the opportunities of upward social mobility. Finally, most of the existing evidence concerns advanced societies, lacking information about developing contexts. In such a context, the present study aims at filling some of the gaps by examining whether exposure to objective information about economic inequality and poverty affects perceptions about opportunities and meritocracy in Chile. Chilean society has experimented strong structural changes in the last 30 years, being the substantial decrease in the level of poverty over the last decades one of the most salient transformations. By using this trend, the present investigation aims to contribute to the understanding of the effect of information about dimensions of socio-economic inequality on individuals’ beliefs, through an experimental study. Specifically, the study assesses how information about changes in the social structure of Chilean society affect the perception about the importance of structural and individual factors in “getting ahead”. We derive our main hypotheses from the opportunity model of beliefs about economic inequality (McCall et al., 2017). Drawing on studies that focus on beliefs about inequality and opportunity rather than redistributive preferences, this model proposes that perceptions of increasing economic inequality generates skepticism about the existence of economic opportunities in the society. Furthermore, we evaluate the direction of perceptions’ updates to identify heterogeneity among participants in the experiment. To test our hypotheses, we applied survey experiments to convenience samples of Chileans in 2019 and 2020 via Netquest, an online panel company that produces heterogenous samples for several Latin American countries. We present findings of two studies. The first experimental study seeks to evaluate the role that information about income inequality and poverty in Chile has on perception of opportunities and the other one evaluates perceptions’ updates with moderators that captures previous knowledge about income inequality. Findings indicate that while factual information about large inequality increase support for structural factors and undermines the belief in meritocracy, information about evolution of poverty in the last decades in Chile also increases the support for the role of social origin in getting ahead in the life. Results about moderators suggest that our informational treatments have very strong effects on the belief in the structural factor for low-income groups and respondents with strong attachment to egalitarian beliefs. We discuss practical and theoretical implications of these results.