The Motivational Cost of Inequality: Opportunity Gaps Reduce the Willingness to Work
Factors beyond a person’s control, such as demographic characteristics at birth, often influence the availability of rewards an individual can expect for their efforts. We know surprisingly little how such differences in opportunities impact human motivation. To test this, we designed a study in which we arbitrarily varied the reward offered to each participant in a group for performing the same task. Participants then had to decide whether or not they were willing to exert effort to receive their reward. Across three experiments, we found that the unequal distribution of offers reduced participants’ motivation to pursue rewards even when their relative position in the distribution was high, and despite the decision being of no benefit to others and reducing the reward for oneself. Participants’ feelings partially mediated this relationship. In particular, a large disparity in rewards was associated with greater unhappiness, which was associated with lower willingness to work–even when controlling for absolute reward and its relative value, both of which also affected decisions to work. A model that incorporated a person’s relative position and unfairness of rewards in the group fit better to the data than other popular models describing the effects of inequality. Our findings suggest opportunity-gaps can trigger psychological dynamics that hurt productivity and well-being of all involved.