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Americans Think Upward Mobility Is Far More Common Than It Really Is

New research confirms that we overestimate our ability to advance "by a wide margin."

Abel Santiago serves a customer at a 7-Eleven convenience store in Santa Monica, California. (REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

The belief that enough hard work can and will result in getting ahead is still fundamental to American life, even if lately that equation feels shakier than ever. In reality, the chances of escaping poverty in the United States varies widely depending on where you live, and while overall social mobility trends have stayed relatively flat over time, the U.S. lags behind other developed nations in this department. And a new study has found that Americans could stand to be quite a bit more cynical about how often upwardly mobile class shifts actually occur.

The research, conducted by psychologists Michael W. Kraus and Jacinth J.X. Tan of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, suggests that Americans have more faith in the idea of upward mobility than they should based on real-world trends. Across four experiments, test participants overestimated economic mobility by an average of roughly 23 percent. The gap suggests that overall, Americans think it's easier to pull out of poverty than it truly is, possibly leading them to downplay the severity of income inequality as a result.

Here's Kraus and Tan, writing in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (our emphasis):

Beliefs in the American Dream permeate our parenting decisions, educational practices, and political agendas, and yet, according to data we present in this manuscript, Americans are largely inaccurate when asked to describe actual trends in social class mobility in society. Across four studies, samples of online survey participants and university students exhibited substantial and consistent overestimates of class mobility—overestimating the amount of income mobility and educational access in society by a wide margin.

As part of the research, Kraus and Tan recruited 751 participants to complete an online survey about social mobility. The researchers then compared these responses to actual data on income-class movements from 1996 to 2007. On five of the six main survey questions, participants overestimated a person's ability to move up (or down) the social ladder with striking consistency.

Participants overestimated how much working an extra 1,000 hours would improve income standing, how many people moved from the bottom 20 percent of income to the top 20 percent, how much a college education helped people rise from the bottom 20 percent of income, and how many students at top universities came from low-income families. Meanwhile, they underestimated how many students at top colleges came from high-income families. The only trend people hit on the nose was how frequently—or rather, infrequently—people moved from the top to the bottom of the income ladder.

On average, participant estimates of social mobility exceeded actual data on social mobility by almost 19 percent. The chart below documents the chasm between social mobility perception and reality on each survey question.

On every question except "downward income mobility," participants overestimated the chances of social mobility relative to actual trends. (JESP)

Not all test participants erred to the same degree. Younger individuals—less beaten down by the world?—were more inclined than their elders to overestimate social mobility. Conservatives tended to overestimate more than liberals did. Optimism, income, education, and job status had no measurable impact on responses.

The most interesting group effect occurred on self-reported social status: the higher a participant's social class, the more that participant tended to overestimate the prospect of social mobility. In other words, a wealthy American appears more likely to believe social status is the direct product of hard work and not an artifact of, say, birth or luck. Or, as Kraus and Tan put it, the finding may reflect a hope that "elevated positions in society are achieved fairly by individuals."

In three follow-up experiments, conducted in a controlled lab environment, the researchers successfully manipulated the degree to which participants believed in social mobility. Whereas the initial experiment could only provide a correlation between belief in upward advance and its reality, these subsequent tests offer some causal evidence that outside information or personal position impact how we perceive the American Dream.

One test found that participants were less inclined to believe in social mobility after being exposed to a fake article stating that social class had a genetic basis. Another test found that participants were more inclined to overestimate upward advance when they were reminded of their own goals, talent, and motivation. A third experiment confirmed the role of social status in social mobility beliefs: participants made to feel higher on the social ladder had more faith in upward advance than those made to feel lower down.

Even in these lab experiments, participants overestimated social mobility across the board:

Across four experiments, test participants overestimated economic mobility by an average of roughly 23 percent. (JESP)

Kraus and Tan conclude by acknowledging that their findings could have a silver lining. If people believe in the power of social mobility, they might be more inclined to work harder to achieve it. At the same time, the researchers fear that having too much faith in the system "downplays the inherent strain that economic inequality places on society, and specifically, on individuals at the bottom of the social class hierarchy."

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