The American Dream – and anecdotal evidence
George Monbiot has written a thought-provoking piece on Romney and myths about self-made men and women in the “land of opportunity”, the United States.
The piece reminded me of a conversation I had a while back. I was at a dinner at Christ Church College Oxford, attended by some very, very wealthy people (sponsors of an event I shan’t name).
I talked to the person sitting next to me. He explained he was a self-made multi-millionaire who had made it after moving to the US. He said he knew many others (some in the room) who had done the same, which demonstrated that the US mentality and culture was really far superior to that in Europe.
In response, I said: wasn’t there actually less social mobility in the US than there was across much of Western Europe, and especially the supposedly “socialist” countries such as Sweden, Norway and Denmark? If you are born poor in the US, surely you are rather more likely to stay that way than if you lived in Sweden, say?
My dining companion was absolutely convinced I was mistaken about that. After all, he himself knew several people just like him: people who had gone from rags to riches. That showed the American Dream is a reality.
Actually, the American Dream is just that – a dream. In 1931, James Truslow Adams defined the American Dream thus:
life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.
The American dream, that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has doubtlessly counted heavily. It has been much more than that. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.
Yet the US is not the “land of opportunity” it pretends to be, as various studies show. You have a much better chance of climbing the social ladder if you live in a Nordic country than if you live in the US. But of course, Americans, even very poor Americans, really passionately believe they live in the quintessential “land of opportunity”. They believe the Dream.
As the wiki page on social mobility points out:
The American Dream Report, a study of the Economic Mobility Project, found that Americans surveyed were more likely than citizens of other countries to agree with statements like “People get rewarded for intelligence and skill”, “People get rewarded for their efforts”; and less likely to agree with statements like “Coming from a wealthy family is ‘essential’ or ‘very important’ to getting ahead,” “Income differences in my country are too large” or “It is the responsibility of government to reduce differences in income.” While another report found such beliefs to have gotten strong over the last few decades.
If the American Dream is a myth, why do so many people buy it? Monbiot points out it’s in the interests of the rich to perpetuate it.
However, there’s a further reason why it’s comparatively easy to perpetuate the myth. The reason this misperception of the US as “a land of opportunity” is so persistent is that an anecdote psychologically trumps a dry statistic every time.
My wealthy companion at that Christ Church dinner personally knew a few individuals like himself who went from rags to riches. And of course there are other popular anecdotes to draw on re Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin and even Bill Clinton (all supposedly rags-to-riches individuals).
These anecdotes really resonate with people in a way that graphs and statistics demonstrating a lack of social mobility do not. When you personally know the individuals concerned, they resonate even more. As I point out in my book Believing Bullshit (“Piling Up The Anecdotes”):
Anecdotal evidence may be largely worthless as evidence, but it can be highly persuasive. Humans love a story, especially if it’s shocking, weird, or emotionally arresting. We enjoy comedies, tragedies, stories of wrongs righted, of revenge, of ghosts, aliens. One reason we find such stories appealing is that they tap into our tendency to feel empathy with others. We enjoy imaginatively putting ourselves in the subject’s position, imagining how it must have felt to exact that bloody revenge, see a ghost, or be abducted by aliens. The more emotional impact the story has, the more memorable it is.
As a consequence, a juicy story can psychologically trump a dry statistic, even when the statistic is rather more informative. The result of a double-blind clinical study of the efficacy of prayer is a dull set of figures easily forgotten, whereas a handful of emotionally arresting anecdotes about prayers answered may resonate with us for a long time.
The fact that it’s possible to trot out emotionally arresting anecdotes about US individuals who have gone from rags to riches does not, of course, show that there are comparatively high levels of social mobility in the US. The statistics show the opposite is true. But people will always be persuaded by such anecdotes, nevertheless. That’s how snake oil salesmen peddle their miracle cures. It’s how you peddle the American Dream.
[Post script: I also met a US academic earlier this year with whom I discussed this. Again, he was incredulous re the suggestion that the US did not lead the field in terms of social mobility. Even smart, college professors believe the Dream].