Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Motivated Reasoning: Social Mobility Edition

I've become more and more interested in the research on motivated cognition -- the processes by which we interpret evidence in a biased manner and reason directionally to our preferred ends. This literature is equal parts fascinating and depressing: fascinating as a window into our modes of thinking, depressing in that it has grim implications for both how much we should trust our learned intuitions and for the ability for evidence and facts to move our mental needles towards more accurate appraisals.

Today, I read an interesting study by John R. Chambers, Lawton K. Swan, and Martin Heesacker entitled Perceptions of U.S. Social Mobility Are Divided (and Distorted) Along Ideological Lines (forthcoming in Psychological Science). The study, as the name suggests, explores how people perceive facts relating to social mobility in the United States. They asked two main questions: First, they asked participants to provide their views on social mobility directly, by asking them to predict how many people who grew up in the bottom, middle, and top third of income brackets end up (as young adults) in the bottom/middle/top brackets (high social mobility would suggest that people move brackets regularly -- a society in which one's origins played no role in economic outcomes would see an even 33/33/33 split; low social mobility would suggest that people generally stay in the income bracket of their parents). Second, they asked people to appraise whether social mobility opportunities had increased or declined over time (they could say it increased a lot, a little, hadn't changed, decreased a little, or decreased a lot).

The results?

Everybody underestimated social mobility (that is, they thought our society was less socially mobile than it was). And likewise, people thought that we had experienced a decline in social mobility opportunities over the past few decades (in reality, social mobility rates have remained flat). But on both points, liberals were further from the mark than conservatives. The authors suggest that this is because liberals are generally pessimistic about the state of economic and social opportunity in America, and so they are motivated to belief that social mobility is worse than it is. Conservatives, by contrast, are more optimistic about America's meritocratic and egalitarian nature, and so (though they underestimated our social mobility too) ended up closer to the right figures.

I bring this up not because it means that social mobility is not a problem. After all, social mobility could simultaneously be more common than we thought and still too low, and indeed there are other western countries which dramatically out-perform America on this front. Rather, I mention these findings because, as the authors note, sometimes motivated cognition is perceived to be a conservative problem ("that's why they don't believe in global warming! They're just cognitively biased!"), and in reality it is a problem shared by all (I assume most of my readers are liberals and thus could use the reminder; conservatives preparing to gloat should know there are plenty of cases where the right is the party led astray). After all, if I'm being honest I can say I was surprised to find that most people underestimated social mobility (which is, of course, exactly what the study would predict would be my response). It's hard for me -- now knowing the data -- to say with confidence how I would have answered the study questions in my naive state, but I suspect at the very least I would have marked that social mobility was slightly worse off than it had been in decades past, and that would have been wrong. And the most likely explanation for its wrongness is that I have certain ideological priors that predispose me to having certain beliefs about the fairness of the American system.

Now, if one wanted to fight the data, there are ways to go about it. Perhaps while social mobility generally has remained unchanged (and is better than we thought), it might be the case that for particular subgroups (over-represented amongst liberals?), social mobility has decreased. There is some evidence pointing in that direction, and this could cause certain people to misperceive social mobility for the polity writ large based on the particular experience of their own group. Another possibility is that the abolishment of Jim Crow, and the resulting opportunities gains for racial minorities, had an upward-social mobility effect that canceled out other factors which generally reduced such mobility -- but that the former is perceived as a one-time "low-hanging fruit" situation while the latter are viewed as more permanent. But, these arguments are, as I said, fighting the data -- it seems likely that the general conclusion (that, for motivated ideological reasons, liberals underestimate the amount of social mobility in America) is accurate. And as a liberal, it's always worth remembering my own fallibility.

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