Psychology, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in The Journal of Politics, Vol. 71, No. 3, July 2009, Pp. 831–846. Copyright 2009 Southern Political Science Association. Used by permission.


The Gulf coast hurricanes of a few years ago vividly highlighted important questions concerning the fair distribution of resources that are of continual concern in the more mundane distributive policies of the modern state. We present an experimental study of allocation decisions across two allocation contexts—nonemergency and emergency (flood) conditions—and with regard to qualitatively different goods—money, prescription medicine, and food. Distributive behavior is likely to vary across context and good depending on how individuals weigh distinct and competing allocation principles—merit, need, and equality here—in different circumstances. We find that allocation behavior is complex but structured, with context and good having predictable effects on the allocation strategies individuals employ. Although we find that individuals overall tend to weigh certain allocation principles more heavily in certain contexts and with regard to certain goods (e.g., emphasizing need in an emergency context or with regard to prescription medicine), we also find that they do not behave in a lockstep fashion and that they still employ a variety of allocation strategies, even in nonobvious ways, in every condition. Our study makes both a theoretical and an empirical contribution to our understanding of allocation behavior and distributive justice with implications for understanding the distributive decisions of policy makers as well as citizens’ views of the fairness and legitimacy of policies.