The “American Dream” is the idea that through hard work, anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and attain wealth. This belief may seem harmless on the surface, perhaps even inspirational, but new research published in Social Psychology Quarterly suggests that it may actually perpetuate negative attitudes towards those in poverty.
The United States has an extreme problem with wealth disparity. The top 1% have billions of dollars, while millions of people live in poverty, unable to afford their basic needs. The way society views poverty and those living in it is crucial to finding solutions. Initiatives and programs may face a lack of funding or a lack of public support due to pervasive negative attitudes towards impoverished people. Meritocracy, or the belief that an individual’s lot in life is due to their merit (work ethic, effort, etc) is a construct highly related to the “American Dream” mindset, and this study seeks to address how it is related to attitudes about poverty.
Lead author Crystal L. Hoyt and colleagues recruited participants living in the United States through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to complete two studies. Study one utilized 301 participants who completed measures that assessed their beliefs on meritocracy, blame, and anti-poor attitudes. Anti-poor attitudes contained statements such as “I have a hard time taking poor people too seriously” and prompted participants to express agreement or disagreement. Study one confirmed that stronger meritocracy views correlated with more blame towards the poor and negative attitudes toward people who are impoverished.
Hoyt and colleagues recruited 439 American participants to take part in study two and randomly assigned them to one of three conditions. The conditions dictated what type of material they read: descriptive meritocracy, anti-meritocracy, or neutral. Participants completed measures on meritocracy, this time including the dimensions of meritocracy: effort, internal control, social mobility, and equal opportunities. As in study one, participants also completed measures on blame and negative attitudes, as well as demographic information.
Results showed that participants who read the anti-meritocracy content reported lower levels of meritocracy, blame, and negative attitudes. These results have expanded previous research and shown that these links apply when specifically thought about in regard to low-income groups. This study also showed that meritocracy predicted negative attitudes toward impoverished people indirectly by blaming them. Additionally, the experimental design showed how anti-meritocracy messaging can lessen blame and negative attitudes towards people living in poverty.
This study significantly contributes to understanding how to lessen negative attitudes toward impoverished people, which has implications for the fight against poverty and how best to tackle it. Despite this, it has some limitations to speak of. One such limitation is that the experimenters did not manipulate the independent variable and mediator independently. Another limitation is that Amazon’s Mechanical Turk has come under scrutiny for producing results with poor validity.
The study, “Believing in the American Dream Sustains Negative Attitudes toward Those in Poverty“, was authored by Crystal L. Hoyt, Jeni L. Burnette, Rachel B. Forsyth, Mitchell Parry, and Brenten H. DeShields.