People Support Social Welfare When They're Hungry Themselves

In moments of physiological hunger, research subjects were more likely to support redistribution—but not to share their own resources. How that type of thinking applies to universal healthcare

It’s hard to know how to feel about Obamacare right now.

One one hand, there’s outrage at stories that like that of San Francisco resident Lee Hammack and his wife, JoEllen Brothers, two middle-income people who had their affordable, comprehensive Kaiser plan cancelled and can only obtain a much less generous policy on the exchange, and without the help of the much-touted subsidies. At the same time, it’s heartening that people like Kentucky resident David Elson, who can’t afford to refill his diabetes prescriptions, keeps his unpaid medical bills in a cardboard box, and suffers from severe eye bleeding, can finally get some treatment.

The cancellations are part of a somewhat uncomfortable fact: Obamacare will, in some form or another, redistribute wealth. The reason the San Francisco couple, and so many people who previously went without insurance, have to buy new insurance is that they’re subsidizing sicker people on the private market. Richer Americans are also being taxed more to cover some of the costs of Obamacare’s other provisions.

Obviously, people whose insurance plans are being cancelled are (understandably) enraged and are more likely to hate the Affordable Care Act as a result. However, only between 2 and 4 percent of people are expected to be these kinds of “losers” under the law.

So what about the rest of us? Should we feel happy for Elson, or sad for Hammack and Brothers? Should we dance on the grave of the former individual market, which wantonly discriminated against the sick in favor of the healthy, or mourn it?

Our upbringing, background, and wealth clearly influence whether we support redistributive policies, but interesting new research shows that, when it comes to supporting social welfare programs, not just our ideologies, but our physiologies, play a role.


Though Obamacare hatred, specifically, might be colored by one’s ideological leanings, past research has actually shown that Republicans and Democrats have striking similar ideas of how wealth should be distributed. Essentially, both groups think our society should be much more equal than it is, and in roughly the same way:

(Dan Ariely)

Lene Aarøe and Michael Bang Petersen, two professors at Denmark's Aarhus University, sought out the foundations of social welfare attitudes in an unusual place: among our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Anthropologists have shown that for hunter-gatherers, big-game kills were few and far between. Aarøe and Petersen reasoned that early man regularly experienced hunger, and when times were especially lean, he had to convince other group members to share their bounty.

Rather than divvying up mammoth steaks, though, today different groups are subsidizing each others’ food stamps and health premiums.

“The social welfare system is the modern system for redistributing resources,” Aarøe told me.

For their study, published last week in the journal Psychological Science, Aarøe and Petersen asked 104 university students to fast for four hours. Then they divided them into two groups: One drank Sprite, and one Sprite Zero. The group that drank the Sprite Zero had, as one might expect, lower blood glucose levels. Their bodies had less energy. They were, well, hungrier.

Then they sat all the subjects down and asked them questions like, “We should increase the amount received by social welfare recipients,” or “Many people get social welfare without really needing it.”

After analyzing their responses, Aarøe and Petersen found that participants who drank the regular Sprite were 10 percent less likely to support social welfare than the Sprite Zero group.

The participants also read a short vignette about someone who ends up on welfare because they are simply down on their luck, though they’re actively looking for work. The “hungry” participants were more likely to think the story about the hapless individual was relevant to the social welfare debate, and they were more likely to share the story with others.

To the authors, this indicated that the hungrier subjects were, essentially, bigger fans of sharing society’s resources, and they wanted to remind others about the importance of redistribution.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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