Inequality in socially permissible consumption

Serena F. Hagerty, Kate Barasz

Research output: Indexed journal article Articlepeer-review

24 Citations (Scopus)


Lower-income individuals are frequently criticized for their consumption decisions; this research examines why. Eleven preregistered studies document systematic differences in permissible consumption-interpersonal judgments about what is acceptable (or not) for others to consume-such that lower-income individuals' decisions are subject to more negative and restrictive evaluations. Indeed, the same consumption decisions may be deemed less permissible for a lower-income individual than for an individual with higher or unknown income (studies 1A and 1B), even when purchased with windfall funds. This gap persists among participants from a large, nationally representative sample (study 2) and when testing a broad array of "everyday" consumption items (study 3). Additional studies investigate why: The same items are often perceived as less necessary for lower- (versus higher-) income individuals (studies 4 and 5). Combining both permissibility and perceived necessity, additional studies (studies 6 and 7) demonstrate a causal link between the two constructs: A purchase decision will be deemed permissible (or not) to the extent that it is perceived as necessary (or not). However, because- for lower-income individuals-fewer items are perceived as necessary, fewer are therefore socially permissible to consume. This finding not only exposes a fraught double standard, but also portends consequential behavioral implications: People prefer to allocate strictly "necessary" items to lower-income recipients (study 8), even if such items are objectively and subjectively less valuable (studies 9A and 9B), which may result in an imbalanced and inefficient provision of resources to the poor.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)14084-14093
Number of pages10
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number25
Publication statusPublished - 23 Jun 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Consumption
  • Economic inequality
  • Income
  • Interpersonal judgments


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