Published in Slate
Most summer movie heroes have an uncontroversial moral mandate: Beat the bad guys; save the city; "With great power comes great responsibility." Robin Hood's crusade is more divisive: He steals from the rich and gives to the poor, redistributing wealth in favor of a more equitable society.
On opening weekend of Ridley Scott's film adaptation (starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett), the climate for Robin Hood's moral brand seems bleak—"socialism" has become a dirty word in America. But while Robin Hood's ideals are politically controversial, researchers in psychology and related fields are finding that humans seem inclined to engage in Robin Hood-like thinking, which they often call "egalitarian motives," "inequity aversion," or "variance reduction." In fact, there's a growing body of evidence that, despite appearances, we're Robin Hoods at heart.
To measure our attitudes toward inequality, researchers conduct "ultimatum games," a form of experimental economics frequently cited by journalists and pop psychologists to debunk the idea that we always act rationally. In an ultimatum game, the first test subject is given money that he must divide between himself and a second subject. The second subject then gets the opportunity to take the deal or to reject it—leaving both subjects with nothing. It turns out that people are inclined to reject the deal when the split is very unequal, even though they'd be better off taking what they can. The conclusion: People are willing to sacrifice their own income to punish those who don't distribute incomes equally.
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