Americans Greatly Overestimate Economic Mobility

Americans Greatly Overestimate Economic Mobility
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Americans greatly overestimate social and economic mobility in the United States, and the effect is most pronounced among younger Americans, conservatives, and those who perceive themselves to be in a higher social class.

America was founded on the notion that hard work and perseverance will bring success and elevate an individual in society; that's the essence of the American Dream. Yet that notion is increasingly unrealistic for Americans who start out on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

Population data on social class mobility in the United States collected between the years of 1996 and 2007 show that less than one percent of people from the bottom 20% of income (less than $18,500 for a household) moved to the top 20% of income (more than $92,000), and roughly one in ten individuals move out of the bottom 20% by working 1,000 extra hours.

Last year, Michael Kraus of Yale University and Jacinth Tan of the University of Illinois recruited 752 participants from Amazon's Mechanical Turk and asked them to estimate social class mobility. Specifically, they questioned them on the aforementioned data. Participants' estimates were way off. They guessed that sixteen percent would rise from the bottom 20% to the top 20%, and 35% of people would make it out of the bottom 20% by working 1,000 extra hours. Once again, the actual numbers are less than one percent and roughly one in ten. The subjects also greatly overestimated the proportion of people able to move out of the bottom 20% by attaining some sort of degree (estimate = 60%, actual = 30%).

These results were published in the Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology.

When Kraus and Tan further dived into the data, they found that participants who were younger, more conservative, or who perceived themselves to be from a higher social class were more likely to overestimate mobility.

On Monday, Kraus published a replication of his study, this time in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. Everything was completed exactly as in the first study albeit with a different set of 747 participants.

The results were nearly identical. Participants once again widely overestimated economic and social mobility, with younger participants, conservatives, and those perceiving themselves to be from a higher social class tendering the highest overestimates.

The replicated results provide additional support for an interpretation that Kraus provided in his original study.

"Perceptions of elevated position in the class hierarchy motivate beliefs that class mobility is fair, just, and possible for many average Americans."

Unfortunately, as actual data demonstrates, these beliefs appear to be erroneous.

On the replicated study, Kraus added, "The current results provide additional evidence consistent with the idea that people overestimate class mobility to protect their beliefs in the promise of equality of opportunity."


Kraus MW (2015) Americans Still Overestimate Social Class Mobility: A Pre-Registered Self-Replication. Front. Psychol. 6:1709. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01709

Kraus, M. W., and Tan, J. J. X. (2015). Americans overestimate social class mobility. J. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 58, 101–111. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2015.01.005

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