Social Mobility and “Locus of Control”

Back when I was the editor of the school paper at my affluent public high school, a bunch of the paper’s staff took a trip to a much poorer high school in Patterson, New Jersey, to meet and talk with some of our counterparts. The gap in resources between the two schools was, as you might guess, pretty striking. But so was this: During a break between meetings, one of my fellow editors casually mentioned to an adult employee of the Patterson schools her college plans—the schools she was applying to, the majors she was considering; unremarkable stuff we discussed with peers and teachers all the time. The adult’s response was something along the lines of: “Oh, that’s great sweetie; it’s wonderful to have dreams”—as though my friend had declared her goal of becoming president, or the next Madonna. This was meant to be an “encouraging” response, of course, but my friend and I were both taken aback at the (presumably unintended) implication that something she’d regarded as a simply the obvious next step in her life—because of course you graduate high school and then go on to college—was a kind of childish fantasy to be indulged, but not taken terribly seriously.

Statistically, the adult’s attitude was, of course, perfectly realistic: The odds of a student at that Patterson school making it into the elite colleges my friend was considering (she ultimately went to Wellesley) were slim indeed. But we both sensed intuitively that this “realistic” attitude, even couched in words of “encouragement,” had to make the odds longer still. Surely some of those students were capable of succeeding in higher education, despite all the barriers we were lucky enough not to face. But if this was the default attitude they imbibed from the adults around them, even at school, how many of them would be too demoralized to really try?

This little anecdote popped into my head as I read a story in The Atlantic’s CityLab, reporting on research that shows Americans believe class mobility in our society is far more common than it really is. Moreover, belief in mobility appears to vary across classes, and the researchers think they know why:

The most interesting group effect occurred on self-reported social status: the higher a participant’s social class, the more that participant tended to overestimate the prospect of social mobility. In other words, a wealthy American appears more likely to believe social status is the direct product of hard work and not an artifact of, say, birth or luck. Or, as Kraus and Tan put it, the finding may reflect a hope that “elevated positions in society are achieved fairly by individuals.”

Clearly there is at least something to this: Plenty of research confirms that everyone likes to attribute their successes in life to their own virtues, and their disappointments to misfortune.  Only at the end of the article does it float the possibility that the causality may, at least in part, run in the other direction: That believing it’s a matter of luck how one fares in life may lead one to do less well, while believing (even somewhat unrealistically) that your fate is in your own hands is a prerequisite for having the motivation to do as well as you can. Perhaps—and there’s a whiff of paradox here—a belief in that kind of personal responsibility for outcomes is one of the lucky advantages that affluent parents pass on to their children.

This is not mere speculation: There’s abundant empirical research around what psychologists call “locus of control” suggesting that this is precisely the case. If students are primed to think that one’s performance on a math test, say, is largely a matter of how hard they work, they will do better on a subequent test than students primed with the suggestion that some students simply have a natural aptitude that others lack. (This is related to another much-discussed phenomenon called “stereotype threat”: Reminding students that members of their demographic group are expected to perform less well on a certain type of test decreases their measured performance on such tests.) It remains true, of course, that a great deal is down to luck—time and chance, as Ecclesiastes memorably put it, happeneth to all—and factors ranging from natural endowments to early childhood environment and nutrition to the quality of schooling all exert a powerful influence on life outcomes. But holding those factors constant, someone who focuses on the power of those factors is likely to do worse than someone similarly situated who believes—even to an unrealistic degree—that effort and determination can overcome those circumstances. In other words, Han Solo’s famous line from The Empire Strikes Back—”Never tell me the odds!”—may contain some genuine psychological wisdom.

I remember pointing out a similar paradox to the great social scientist Philip Zimbardo when he came to Cato a few years back. Zimbardo’s famous “Stanford Prison Experiment” showed how powerfully social circumstances and expectations (in that case, whether subjects were randomly assigned to the role of “prisoner” or “guard”) could determine behavior, overwhelming the effects of individual character and disposition for many of the subjects. Yet as Zimbardo himself noted, it was only when his then-girlfriend held him personally responsible for the mental anguish he was visiting on his student volunteers that he broke out of the “detached scientist” script he’d been following and halted the experiment. His experiment showed that social circumstance was a powerful determinant of individual behavior—but a norm that said each individual is responsible for his conduct turned out to be a critical component of the determining circumstances.

That isn’t to say that we should ignore empirical data about class mobility or perpetuate a “noble lie” that luck and unchosen environmental factors are irrelevant to life chances. In our capacity as citizens thinking about policy, we should certainly be clear-eyed about the myriad barriers to upward mobility faced by those at the bottom, and how to reduce them. But it does call into question the CityLab article’s conclusion that “Americans could stand to be quite a bit more cynical about how often upwardly mobile class shifts actually occur.” We should also consider whether, as a broader cultural attitude, cynicism about mobility might prove a self fulfilling prophecy—and whether, for those already starting from a position of disadvantage, the sense that it’s futile to strive for more is yet another disadvantage to overcome.