Nav: Home

Movin' on up? Views on social mobility shape Americans' faith in the status quo

January 17, 2017

Is the American socioeconomic ladder sturdy, offering a good chance for people to move up and down? Or is it rickety, leaving most people stuck where they are?

Psychologists at Princeton University and Memorial University of Newfoundland have found that how Americans view social mobility affects their willingness to defend the basic underpinnings of American society -- such as social and economic policies, laws, and institutions.

In a series of studies, the researchers found that people who think Americans have ample opportunities to change their place in society are more likely to defend the status quo than those who think people are mostly stuck in their current place.

"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 began the research as a postdoctoral researcher 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."

Day conducted the research with Susan Fiske, Princeton's Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and professor of psychology and public affairs. Together they are the authors of an article describing the research titled "Movin' on Up? How Perceptions of Social Mobility Affect Our Willingness to Defend the System" that was published online Nov. 22, 2016, by the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

"Now seems like a particularly important time to understand why people don't support a system they see as fixed against them," Fiske said. "We show that a system that doesn't work for them causally undermines their support."

In the experiments, nearly 850 Americans were assigned to read one of two summary reports describing social mobility in the United States or to read neither. One report described a study on the relative ease with which Americans can move up and down the socioeconomic ladder. The other report took a similar form but highlighted a message of low social mobility. Participants then answered a series of questions designed to test their willingness to defend the current system.

"We repeatedly found that those who were exposed to information that conveyed a sense of low social mobility reduced their desire to defend the system as compared to those exposed to information suggesting that social mobility is healthier," Day said.

Michael Kraus, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Yale University who studies how people perceive and explain the attainment of social status, said the research demonstrates "that blindness about the actual lack of economic mobility in society can prevent Americans from realizing how unfair and unmeritocratic our current economic system is."

Shai Davidai, an assistant professor of psychology at the New School in New York who studies perceptions of and reactions to economic inequality, said the new research is interesting to consider in the context of recent political events in the United States.

"While traditionally more conservative individuals tend to reject change and accept the status quo, this past election has been riddled with voices on the right calling for change and rejection of the prevailing forces," he said. "Could this shift be explained by the drop in actual mobility rates in the previous decades? Are people's subjective perceptions of mobility rates catching up with the actual decline in mobility in the U.S.?"

Looking forward, Day said, the research can help influence future research by highlighting the importance of beliefs about social mobility in defending the status quo.

"For example, it may be useful for future research to examine how perceived social mobility may relate to support for various programs and policies," Day said. "More broadly, it may be useful to better understand how we can effectively reduce barriers that limit people's opportunities to change their position in society."
-end-


Princeton University

Related Psychology Articles:

Psychology research: Antivaxxers actually think differently than other people
As vaccine skepticism has become increasingly widespread, two researchers in the Texas Tech University Department of Psychological Sciences have suggested a possible explanation.
In court, far-reaching psychology tests are unquestioned
Psychological tests are important instruments used in courts to aid legal decisions that profoundly affect people's lives.
Psychology program for refugee children improves wellbeing
A positive psychology program created by researchers at Queen Mary University of London focuses on promoting wellbeing in refugee children.
Psychology can help prevent deadly childhood accidents
Injuries have overtaken infectious disease as the leading cause of death for children worldwide, and psychologists have the research needed to help predict and prevent deadly childhood mishaps, according to a presentation at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association.
Raising the standard for psychology research
Researchers from Stanford University, Arizona State University, and Dartmouth College used Texas Advanced Computing Center supercomputers to apply more rigorous statistical methods to psychological studies of self-regulation.
Psychology: Robot saved, people take the hit
To what extent are people prepared to show consideration for robots?
Researchers help to bridge the gap between psychology and gamification
A multi-disciplinary research team is bridging the gap between psychology and gamification that could significantly impact learning efforts in user experience design, healthcare, and government.
Virtual reality at the service of psychology
Our environment is composed according to certain rules and characteristics which are so obvious to us that we are scarcely aware of them.
Modeling human psychology
A human being's psychological make-up depends on an array of emotional and motivational parameters.
Study examines state of social, personality psychology research
University of Illinois at Chicago researchers conducted two studies to examine the state and quality of social and personality research and how practices have changed, if at all.
More Psychology News and Psychology Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Climate Mindset
In the past few months, human beings have come together to fight a global threat. This hour, TED speakers explore how our response can be the catalyst to fight another global crisis: climate change. Guests include political strategist Tom Rivett-Carnac, diplomat Christiana Figueres, climate justice activist Xiye Bastida, and writer, illustrator, and artist Oliver Jeffers.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Speedy Beet
There are few musical moments more well-worn than the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. But in this short, we find out that Beethoven might have made a last-ditch effort to keep his music from ever feeling familiar, to keep pushing his listeners to a kind of psychological limit. Big thanks to our Brooklyn Philharmonic musicians: Deborah Buck and Suzy Perelman on violin, Arash Amini on cello, and Ah Ling Neu on viola. And check out The First Four Notes, Matthew Guerrieri's book on Beethoven's Fifth. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.