This is the title of an article this month in Science Advances. It provides another perspective on to the barriers to solving ageism.
In any case of discrimination there is an advantaged group and a disadvantaged group. Sexism , racism or discrimination against the disabled all have an advantaged group. In a series of nine experiments the researchers focused on these advantaged groups. They measured their attitudes towards enhancing equality. It seems that they will protect their relative advantage, even if it is to their detriment.
The researchers looked at “policies” designed to reduce inequalities across various contexts. They looked at mortgage lending, salary, hiring and even start-up funding. They looked at race, gender, criminal record and disability discrimination. The participants were all from the relevant advantaged group. They selected white versus Hispanic or black, or male not female etc. In each case participants where first given an example showing discrimination. "Historically Hispanics with the same profile as White candidates are offered smaller mortgages". They were then offered rules designed to reduce inequality. In some cases the rule was set up as a zero sum game. “Hispanics will be given more mortgages and the money will come from white groups”. In other cases a zero sum was explicitly excluded. “This will make no difference to mortgage available to you”. In some cases the rule was set up such that there would be more funds available to both groups. Even though equality would increase. “This policy will increase the availability of mortgages to everybody”.
The results are fascinating. Most of the advantaged group saw any attempts to reduce inequality as “zero sum”. Indeed attempts to reduce inequality were seen by them as discriminatory. They were thought to threaten the advantaged group. This happens even when the rule explicitly excludes a zero sum outcome. It occurs when the rule would enhance the whole “pie”. The inequality reduction was a threat for many, even though the group would be better off.
The results are the same across all kinds of discrimination. Salaries for men and women or employment opportunities for the disabled. It appears that this effect dominates normal biases. In another experiment they used a Californian affirmative action proposition. The State of California sought to hire and award contracts and university places with a bias towards minorities. The researchers used the proposition with a sample of White and Asian Californians. They asked for their voting intention. They also measured individuals political leaning , liberal versus conservative. They predicted declared voting intentions. Most White and Asian Republicans or Democrats voted against the bill. The best predictor was not their political affiliation but their perception that reducing inequality was "harming".
The research team went so far as to generate novel new groups. Participants believed that they would be assigned to one of two groups based on a psychological test. In fact all participants were assigned to the “Rattlers” not the “Eagles”. They were given problem solving tasks to perform. They were told that there would be individual bonuses at the end of the session.
The Rattlers were made in to the “advantaged group”. It was announced that over many weeks the Rattlers had received more bonuses. The proposal was that this should be corrected in one of two ways. In the first instance 50 extra bonuses would be go to the “Eagles” and 5 to the “Rattlers”. In that case both groups would be better off but much more equal. The second proposal was to change the bonus based on the previous weeks results. 50 bonuses would removed from the “Eagles” and 5 from the “Rattlers". Both groups would be worse off but the inequality between the groups increased. The voting between the options was 50/50. Many of the participants perceived the first option as more harmful to their position. The best predictor of their choice was their belief that “If you rise, I Fall”.
A home appliance company can design equipment for older customers. They can market it under a different brand or range name. For a service firm this is often not possible. The different groups of consumers are wandering around the same space. They are served by the same staff. In adapting to the needs of older consumers many firms do not have the luxury of excluding other groups. The Age Neutrality strategy suggests adapting the service experience to be as attractive to all age groups.
The article in Science Advances adds a level of complexity to the task. Sadly an appeal to older customers that the experience has been adapted “just for you” may backfire. The article implies that the firm cannot talk about the adaptation! Any public announcement that the inequality between the young and the old had been reduced would be seen as negative by the young.
Since the “old” perceive themselves not to be old, the same claim can have just as negative effects on them. Ageist discrimination exists across all age groups. The under thirties believe that old age starts at 60 and use an ageing stereotype after that. The 65 year olds still believe they are 58. For them “old” is beyond 75 or 80. They too have a negative stereotype of old age, it just starts later. They too could see an attempt to equalize the service across age groups as negative.