Researchers have found why some people are fans of ultra-rich individuals like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, but not billionaires in general

Researchers have found why some people are fans of ultra-rich individuals like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, but not billionaires in general
A mobile billboard calling for higher taxes on the ultra-wealthy with an image of billionaire Jeff Bezos, near the US Capitol on May 17. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
  • People tend to have negative views of massive wealth inequality and billionaires as a class.
  • But a focus on individual billionaires leads people to change their minds, researchers found.

America's top-five richest men now have twice as much combined wealth as they did in March 2020 - and the rest of the country's billionaires aren't far behind them in doubling their fortunes.

Before the pandemic, a majority of US adults told Pew Research that America's levels of wealth inequality are too high, and things have only gotten more extreme since then.

On average, people tend to hold a negative view of inequality as a phenomenon and billionaires as a group, according to a new paper by researchers from Cornell and Ohio State.

"When you think about 'the wealthy' or 'the 1%,' the mind goes to situational attributions much more readily," said Cornell psychology professor Thomas Gilovich, according to Ohio State News. "You think about the system being rigged, the privileges they have, and therefore you're much more willing to support, for example, an inheritance tax to deal with growing income inequality."

But Gilovich and his co-authors found that people are less bothered by concerns of fairness or privilege when it comes to individual billionaires.


"When we look at one person at the top, we tend to think that person is talented and hard-working and they're more deserving of all the money they made," Ohio State marketing professor Jesse Walker said.

This perception has a dramatic impact on policy and public life, the authors write.

When billionaires were viewed as a group, study participants were more likely to be supportive of redistribution measures, such as higher taxes. But presenting participants with Forbes magazine profiles of individual billionaires, correlated with a significant decline in their support for those policies.

"Participants thought that individuals at the top were more deserving of their successes and, in turn, were less likely to support redistribution when inequality was represented by individual success," the authors wrote.

In the world beyond the confines of the study, critiques of these superrich individuals' fortunes or their well-documented stinginess often draw ire from fans looking to defend them.


In a recent example, one Bezos supporter told Insider that he believed early Amazon employee McKenzie Scott - who was Amazon's first accountant and instrumental in its founding and growth - did not deserve the wealth she received in her divorce from Jeff Bezos, saying that her philanthropy is "purely from Jeff's hard work."

Interestingly, the researchers found that presenting billionaires in groups as small as seven was enough to break the spell from presenting them as individuals.

"As consumers, we need to pay attention to how we react to news about the rich and inequality," Walker said. "How that information is presented to us can influence us, even our policy preferences, in ways that we may not always consciously realize."