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• Unit VI. Social Inequalities, I. Sociological Perspective

•  Simulation

• Coin Toss To Explore Social Inequality

• Themes: 4 Inequality, 1 Sociological Perspective

• Description
This classroom simulation uses rounds of flipping coins to explain how social structures can limit individual outcomes, yet produce unequal outcomes that students may attribute to individual effort.

• Learning Goals
1. To show that more than individual characteristics shape the distribution of societal rewards. 2. To see that underlying rules of social interactions can affect the outcomes. 3. To illustrate that the sociological imagination can enhance our understanding of the social world more than individual explanations can.
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• Things Needed
Each student needs to bring 5 pennies to class the day of the simulation. The simulation and discussion takes an entire class. A 75-minute class works best, but it can be done in a 50-minute class. Instructions can be posted on a slide or in handout.
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• Actions

To do this simulation, you each need 5 coins.

There are multiple rounds of coin tossing, with each round lasting about two minutes. In each two-minute round you will find a partner who has coins, one of you will call out a bet (of one to three coins) on the outcome (heads or tails) of each flip. The winner of each bet takes the specified number of coins from the loser. Once you have lost all your coins, you are out of the game. At that point, you should watch others play the game and note the “strategies” they use, so you can comment afterwards about how you played and what you observed. Winners should look for another person to play against for the rest of the round. After each two-minute round, we’ll tally the number of people with 0, 1-4, 5-9, 10-15, and 16+ coins. Whoever has coins left at the end of each round goes on to play the next round and should begin to play with a new partner.

But, before beginning, how do you think the distribution of coins will change during the course of the game. Who is so skilled at tossing a coin that you can guarantee that you will flip heads almost every time? This is not a skill-based activity. Do you think that the uniform distribution of coin-flipping talent will lead to a random reshuffling of the coins? Will it preserve the uniform distribution of coins among players (like now with everyone having 5 coins)? If no one is better at flipping than anyone else, then no one will get ahead? Is that your prediction? Let’s test your hypothesis by playing the game.

Post the results on the board or an overhead. Are you surprised at the results?

• More Information

First, let’s look at the importance of skill and talent. Winners, please explain how you won? Class, what do you see as the role of individual skill, actions, efforts, intention? They did not determine whether you won or lost. Does this skewed distribution (many losers and few winners) resemble any other distributions you know about? To see how the game relates to real world conditions and processes that generate inequality, consider how modifying the rules might change the outcomes.

1) What would happen if some players started the game with a different number of coins? [Someone with 10 coins bets and loses 3, has lost 30% of assets, but is still in a high bracket. But if someone with 3 coins bets 3 and loses, they have lost 100% of their assets and are out of the game.] An initial advantage goes a long way toward success, whereas an initial disadvantage leaves students behind rather quickly. When a player is behind in the game, even with chance determining their subsequent success, it is very difficult to gain coins. In life, the valued goods may be education, or income, or wealth rather than coins, but initial advantages are still important.

2) What would happen if bankrupt players could borrow money to get back into the game? People (and organizations) differ not only in the amount of assets they have, but in their access to capital (money). Some people (or businesses) have easier access to credit than others, thus they are better able to handle economic misfortune. Some businesses are not allowed to fail. Congress bails them out even when banks won’t. Differential access to credit exists in the real world.

3) What would happen if some players could pool their resources and play as a group? (Examples in the real world are rotating credit associations or inter-firm alliances.) In life, we are connected to groups of relatives, friends, and acquaintances who have economic and non-economic resources that can help, or hinder, our individual efforts to succeed. What do you see as the benefits of cooperative arrangements?

4) What would happen if a wealth or inheritance tax had been imposed between rounds? Stratification develops when inequalities become enduring, lasting, and intergenerational. Suppose the rules of the game were such that the winners had to turn over 20% (or more) of what they won to those at the bottom of the distribution? What would be the result? [The game could continue and more people would stay in it.] Most societies limit inequality by imposing some limitations on the accumulation and transmission of wealth, while the game allowed no such provision. Why do you suppose most societies have normative and legal limitations on wealth distribution. What are the risks of “too much” inequality? How did those of you who went bankrupt feel? Apathetic and withdrawn, angry and resentful, oppositional and ready to stage a revolution? Under such conditions, large costs are required to maintain social control. How is “too much” defined, by whom and through what processes?

These are all interesting sociological Qs. How much does the coin toss simulation mimic and depart from the rules of real life? Is there anything else the game does not accurately reflect about stratification in the world that we have not mentioned? What about the role of talent and determination in the real world? Is it irrelevant, as this game suggests? The game does eliminate all personal differences by providing each player with identical chances for success. It is designed this way in order to highlight the importance of rules that are easily overlooked in the complexities of real life. But, we do not need to conclude from this that talent and personal effort makes no difference in the real world. Instead, what do you think is a reasonable conclusion to draw from this simulation? That individual effort and achievement are not the only factors that contribute to success. Getting ahead or falling behind also depends on taken-for-granted rules, social structures of opportunities, and to some degree luck. The principles of cumulative advantage and cumulative disadvantage operate within social structures and institutionalized rules that constrain an individual’s life chances, and help to explain stratification processes and outcomes. This is another reason many societies limit the amount of inequality that they allow to develop within them, because there is no telling who will be hit, for example, by the closing of a major manufacturing unit, layoffs, a catastrophic illness, a major tornado or hurricane, a terrorist attack, and so forth. Another question for you to take with you from this class is: In what kind of a society do you want to live? One where inequalities of wealth and income continue to grow or one where all members of society feel that the distribution of wealth and income is reasonably just? Do you want public policies or the rules of the game to be ones that intensify the trend toward greater inequality, or do you want public policies to limit such trends? Do you, or will you, work politically to achieve the kind of society in which you want to live? If you don’t, those in the top 10 or 20% of the distribution will carry the day, continuing to change inheritance, income tax, and social service policies to benefit them, thereby furthering the trend toward inequality in our society.