Is The American Dream An Illusion?

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Americans still are holding on to the dream of upward economic mobility. What will make them finally see the light?

Is The American Dream An Illusion?
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American national identity is built on the idea that if you work hard you can get ahead. Get a well-paying job or strike out on your own and climb the economic ladder. But society’s belief in that upward economic mobility is far above-and-beyond its reality.


Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University, asked just over 3,300 Americans a series of simple questions about economic mobility in this country. For example, one question asked respondents to guess the likelihood that somone born in the 20% economic tier would stay there through his or her life. Gilovich and his co-author, Shai Davidai, then compared people’s answers to the actual statistics about economic mobility, as divided into quintiles–income tiers of 20%.

“What we found is that people believe there’s more upward mobility than there actually is, and they underestimate the amount of downward mobility,” says Gilovich. “Even though if some people are rising to the top quintile, other people, by definition, have to be falling.”

The fact that people believe there is more upward economic mobility than downward is particularly striking since basic statistics means that no one can move up without someone else moving down. And the people who most overestimate the ability to rise up the economic ranks may or may not surprise you: Poorer individuals believe there is more mobility than rich people do. Political conservatives also are more likely to overestimate upward economic mobility, though Gilovich emphasized that, on average, all demographic groups believed there is more economic mobility than actually exists. The only difference was how much they overestimate.

This may explain why a recent Gallup poll shows that 60% of Americans are “satisfied with their ability to get ahead,” despite the fact that two thirds of Americans are dissatisfied with the way income and wealth are distributed in the country.

It’s an amazing level of cognitive dissonance that could either be a testament to the power of myth-making in American society or show a general lapse in our brain’s ability to judge these questions. Gilovich’s next step in this research is to test if this is a general bias in the way people think, or if it applies only to economic mobility. He uses the example of NFL to make this point: His hunch is that people are more likely to think a low-ranked team will rise in the rankings next season than they will be to think a high-ranking team will plummet.

“Part of it is a layperson’s theory of motivation,” he says. “The teams from the bottom are trying to move up, whereas the teams on the top aren’t trying to move down. So to most people it seems more likely that the Jaguars will go up than the Seahawks will go down.”

About the author

Jay is a freelance journalist, formerly a staff writer for Fast Company. He writes about technology, inequality, and the Middle East.