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.

Then, the researchers asked the participants to play something called the Dictator Game, in which a subject is given a pot of money and told to divide it up between herself and another participant however she chooses.

The hungry subjects were, as it turns out, all talk.

“All participants were asked to divide 2,000 Danish kroner between themselves and another participant,” Aarøe said. “What we saw was that participants with low levels of glucose did not share more money than those with high glucose.”

That is, the hungrier people liked the idea of encouraging others to share, but they didn’t actually want to be the ones doing the sharing.

Past studies from the same authors have also shown that people who are in a physically weaker situation tend to support wealth redistribution. Voters were more likely to be supportive of welfare policies if they were asked before lunchtime, as opposed to after, for example. Among rich men, those with smaller biceps were more likely to be open to wealth redistribution. (The opposite was true for poor men).

Granted, these studies were small, and they were performed in Denmark, which already has a more generous social welfare net that the U.S. does, so they can’t be applied directly.

So will some sugar-free soda help Obamacare go down for those who simply can’t stand it? Not really. But Aarøe does connect her study to an interesting theory in evolutionary psychology.

(Sam Howzit/Flickr)

“These findings we believe show that the psychology we use to determine our opinions about social welfare is a psychology designed for resource acquiring,” she said. Because of the randomness associated with early forms of food acquisition, like hunting and gathering, “the alternative strategy is for people to ask other members of the group to share their resources. When people express support for social welfare, they’re implementing a strategy for acquiring resources for themselves. But once they acquire resources for themselves, they hold onto them rather than sharing them.”


Jonathan Chait, writing in New York magazine, makes a good point: The people currently experiencing “rate shock” on the new insurance exchanges will only be at a disadvantage as long as they stay healthy:

These individuals will, of course, go from Obamacare victims to Obamacare beneficiaries the moment anybody in their household develops a serious medical condition, in the same manner that fire insurance is a bad deal for people whose houses don’t burn.

So in coming years, getting psoriasis, for today’s Obamacare detractors, might be like getting sugar-free soda was for Aarøe’s subjects. Becoming eligible for Medicaid, or having your private insurance premiums subsidized by healthier individuals, might at that point seem like a great idea. But no matter how strong or weak we feel relative to others, when it comes to sharing resources, we want someone else to pay.