President Donald Trump’s cabinet appointments and inauguration have highlighted a deep voter divide between those who think that billionaires and multimillionaires can successfully run a country “like a business” and those who question corporate money’s influence in the highest levels of government.
It turns out that your willingness to defend “the system” ― the social, political and economic forces that structure our lives ― depends on how easy you think it is to scale the economic ladder. Basically, the easier you think it is for you to become richer over the course of your lifetime, the more willing you are to defend the status quo, according to a set of new experiments from researchers at Princeton University and Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada.
“Belief in the American Dream appears tied to defending the status quo,” said Martin Day, an assistant professor of psychology at Memorial University of Newfoundland, who started researching this subject while at Princeton. “This research suggests that if people knew how unlikely it is to realize the dream, they may increase their demand for a better system.”
In the first experiment, researchers recruited 195 people to take an online survey. They first randomly divided the participants to read one of two descriptions of social mobility in America; using the same set of statistics, the two different summaries either portrayed the U.S. as a country with moderate social mobility, or a country with low social mobility.
Then the participants answered questions meant to gauge their beliefs on whether American policies tend to serve the greater good, if hard work and talent can help you get ahead, whether people’s good and bad actions are justly rewarded and whether it’s difficult to change your social class in the U.S.
The researchers found that participants who had read about low social mobility in the U.S. were significantly less willing to defend the current system.
Specifically, they were more likely to agree that “American society needs to be radically restructured” and “American society is getting less fair every year.” They were also less likely to endorse meritocratic values and less likely to believe in a just world.
These results held true no matter how participants identified politically; self-identified liberals, moderates and conservatives were all affected by their exposure to different social mobility narratives.
The second experiment repeated these methods among almost 500 participants, but added a control group that did not read any information about social mobility beforehand. They found, again, that people who were prepped with a passage about the low social mobility in the U.S. were less likely to defend the system compared to both the moderate social mobility group and the control group. They were also less likely to believe in their own chances for social mobility.
In case you’re curious, the set of facts woven into differing narratives about social mobility in the U.S. show that one’s definition of the American Dream will determine whether or not you feel you’ve achieved it. For instance, based on absolute definitions of social mobility, the U.S. appears to be very mobile — 67 percent of adults have higher family incomes than their parents had, and this is especially true for people in the fifth-lowest income segment.
However, relative mobility is less positive. About 44 percent of people born into the bottom fifth income segment will remain there into adulthood, while only 22 percent will rise to the next highest level. Meanwhile, 47 percent of those born in the top fifth income segment will remain there, while only 7 percent will fall to the bottom.
Because of the results of his experiments, Day concludes that one way to gain more support for policies and programs that can change political and economic systems is to simply educate people about the low amount of social mobility in the U.S.
“System justification can be a strong driver of maintaining the status quo,” he concludes. “The present studies indicate that perceived social mobility may be a promising tool for disrupting system defense, altering endorsement of impactful ideologies, and encouraging various system change efforts.”
But results from several other studies and polls, combined with last year’s political events, reveal just how complicated Day’s advice would be to carry out. Recent surveys show that Americans already do have a realistic and negative view of social mobility in general, but hold an unusually optimistic one for themselves.
A 2012 Pew Research survey shows that about two-thirds of Americans correctly believe that the income gap between the rich and poor has grown larger in the last decade. A separate Pew study, also conducted in 2012, showed that 76 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that “today it’s really true that the rich just get richer while the poor get poorer,” although this was more likely the case if participants described themselves as Democrats (92 percent) or independents (73 percent). Only 56 percent of Republicans agreed with this statement.
However, 64 percent of Americans in a 2014 New York Times poll said they believed that they could be born poor, work hard and become rich in their lifetimes. Americans also disproportionately tend to believe they’re “middle class” — a 2015 Pew survey revealed that 47 percent believe themselves to be middle class, 29 percent think they are lower-middle class, and 11 percent say they are upper-middle class. In other words, about 9 in 10 Americans believe they are in the middle class.
This contradiction between an accurate assessment of the systemic lack of social mobility, but an inflated sense of one’s own place in the system, is perhaps best embodied in the country’s recent decision to elect a “blue collar billionaire” to the highest office in the land. Anger at elites and a perceived lack of social mobility propelled his populist message, but the president’s status as a billionaire businessman also made him an aspirational figure that many voters found attractive.
Day’s research was published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.