On the Emergence of Minority Disadvantage: Testing the Cultural Red King Hypothesis

Aydin Mohseni, Cailin O’Connor and Hannah Rubin

The study of social justice asks: what sorts of social arrangements are equitable ones? But also: how do we derive the inequitable arrangements we often observe in human societies? In particular, often in spite of explicitly stated equity norms, categorical inequity tends to be the rule rather than the exception. Wherever humans recognize social categories—gender, race, religion etc.—status inequities, power inequities, and economic inequities tend to emerge across these divisions. There are many reasons such inequities emerge. We devise an experiment to test one mechanism that has been proposed to explain the emergence of minority disadvantage in particular—the cultural Red King hypothesis.

This effect was first described by political philosopher Justin Bruner, who uses agent-based models to show how minority groups can be disadvantaged in the emergence of bargaining conventions solely by dint of their group size (Bruner 2017). As he shows, in groups with completely symmetric preferences, abilities, and resources, minority status alone can increase the likelihood that individuals end up with fewer economic resources. The driver behind this effect is a learning asymmetry between minority and majority groups. While minority members commonly meet their out-group, the reverse is not true. As a result, members of a minority will more quickly learn to interact with their out-group. In situations where this learning is about bargaining interactions, this often proves disadvantageous. Low, accommodating demands tend to be more safe in bargaining interactions, meaning that swift learners should adopt these demands. Once this is done, members of the majority group can take advantage of this accommodation.

Subsequent work has shown that this effect arises robustly in cultural evolutionary models (O’Connor 2017; O’Connor and Bruner 2017). Given the simplicity of these models, though, a further question arises: can the cultural Red King really occur in human groups? If so, there are important consequences for political philosophy. To give one example, consider accounts of social justice that appeal to historical justice in the sense outlined by Nozick (1974). The general idea is that distributions of wealth derived from just processes are just. The models mentioned represent individuals who gain access to goods by willingly entering into bargaining agreements, in doing so employing strategies that best benefit them given their social arrangement. We might well want to describe the interactions they engage in as just ones. And yet, under these conditions entire classes of people end up disadvantaged for no reason besides their minority status.

Of course, as noted, highly simplified models of social interaction cannot usually be taken at face value as explaining real social phenomena. One important epistemic role they can play is directing attention to processes that might be occurring in the real world, and which merit further empirical investigation. For this reason, we study the cultural Red King effect in the laboratory. In particular, we draw on tools from experimental economics. These allow us to create an environment where actors in groups bargain for real money, and where the only asymmetry between them is group size. In this way, we are able to control conditions so that if we systematically see an advantage arising for large groups, we can conclude that the cultural Red King can potentially occur among human actors.

Our experimental results align with the predictions of the cultural Red King hypothesis. Over 14 trials involving a total of 112 participants members of minority groups ended up earning less money than those in majority groups. And this difference emerged over the course of an experiment where individuals learned to bargain. The results of the experiments are significant and suggestive: individuals in minority groups do indeed end up receiving fewer resources than those in majority groups. This investigation demonstrates a key role for simplified models—directing empirical research in ways that would not otherwise be obvious.


  • Bruner, J. P. (2017). Minority (dis) advantage in population games. Synthese, 1–15.
  • Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, state, and utopia. New York basic book .
  • O’Connor, C. (2017). The cultural red king effect. The Journal of Mathematical Sociology 41 (3), 155–171.
  • O’Connor, C. and J. Bruner (2017). Dynamics and diversity in epistemic communities. Erkenntnis, 1–19.

Author: Research Group for Non-Monotonic Logics and Formal Argumentation

Created: 2019-02-26 Tue 09:41