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Free Will

Is Climbing the Socioeconomic Ladder Possible?

Believing in free will can alter our perceptions of social mobility.

Key points

  • The notion of upward social mobility in the United States is pervasive despite contrary evidence.
  • In five studies, the author reports beliefs in free will influences perceptions of socioeconomic mobility.
  • Belief in free will may contribute to perceptions of upward social mobility by instilling feelings of control.
Samantha Garrote / Pexels
When belief in free will is challenged, and people become less certain about their ability to determine their own outcomes, upward social mobility feels less feasible.
Source: Samantha Garrote / Pexels

Achieving upward social mobility is a valued goal for most people. We relish in “rags to riches” stories and even envision our own steady ascension up the socioeconomic ladder.

This perception that we have the ability to climb up the rungs of society is widespread despite that the United States has one of the lowest rates of actual social mobility among industrialized nations (Fiske & Markus, 2012). Why do we think we can transform our social positions in life? I believe one reason might stem from our belief in free will.

Belief in free will makes us feel like we can exert some control over our environment. Thus, it is possible that changing our free will beliefs influences how much we believe we can change our social standing. I tested this hypothesis in a series of studies (Seto, 2023).

In the first study, 296 participants were randomly assigned to write about experiences reflecting a high belief in free will, in which their behavior was determined by personal choices, or write about experiences reflecting a low belief in free will, in which their behavior was determined by situational factors. Then, they evaluated their own sense of perceived individual social mobility.

I found that participants who wrote about experiences reflecting a low belief in free will reported lower perceptions of individual social mobility compared to participants who wrote about experiences reflecting a high belief in free will. In other words, weakening belief in free will made people feel like there were fewer opportunities for them to move up in society.

Socioeconomic Timelines

In my second study, I was curious about when these changes in social class occur. That is, what do people perceive as their timeline for climbing the social ladder?

Three hundred and fifty participants completed the same belief in free-will manipulation. Then, they were asked to think about themselves in the present, five years from now, 10 years from now, and 20 years from now, and then presented with an image of a ladder with 10 rungs representing where people stand in society. The top rung denoted the “best off” while the bottom rung denoted the “worst off.” Participants indicated which ladder rung they stood on across each time point.

This study revealed that altering free will beliefs did not change subjective social status in the present or five years into the future. However, reducing free will beliefs led to lower perceived subjective social status 10 years and 20 years into the future. This suggests that people believe that changing social positions in life is possible, but it takes time.

Objective Perceptions of Social Mobility

Up until now, I examined subjective perceptions of social mobility or people’s broader views of social class. In other words, do people generally believe they can increase their position in society? In my third and fourth studies, I investigated whether changing belief in free will influences objective perceptions of social mobility or people’s distinct views of social class. For example, do people believe they can improve specific aspects of their social class such as occupation and income?

In these studies, participants completed the same belief in free-will manipulation as before and answered questions about what their occupation, education, income, and lifestyle would look like in the future. In the third study, 294 participants thought about their objective social class 10 years into the future. In the fourth study, 290 participants thought about their objective social class 20 years into the future.

To my surprise, changing belief in free will did not lead to perceived differences in objective social class standing across both future time points.

I conducted a fifth study to address the discrepancy in my findings. I reduced the length of the study and limited the participant age range to strengthen the study design. I also included subjective and objective social mobility measures to determine whether altering belief in free will only changes one type of social class.

Two hundred and eighty-eight participants completed the same belief in free-will manipulation. Then, they completed the same subjective social mobility evaluation from my first study and the same objective social mobility assessment from my third and fourth studies.

Kindel Media / Pexels
Varying free will beliefs can help temper expectations about climbing the socioeconomic ladder.
Source: Kindel Media / Pexels

Replicating my previous effects, I found that attenuating free will beliefs led to lower subjective social mobility and lower projections of objective social class 10 and 20 years into the future.

My research suggests that free will beliefs change our perceptions about upward social mobility. This is more consistent when we think about social class subjectively than objectively.

Of course, participants in this research represent the Weird demographic (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic societies) and do not speak to the intersection of social identities. Future research is needed to enhance the generalizability of my findings.

Can we climb the socioeconomic ladder? Our actual ability to ascend social ranks is likely more challenging than we imagine. But altering our belief in free will can change our entire perspective.

References

Fiske, S.T., & Markus, H.R. (2012). Facing social class: How societal rank influences interaction. Russell Sage Foundation.

Seto, E. (2023). Climbing the Invisible Ladder: Attenuating Belief in Free Will Reduces Subjective Perceptions of Social Mobility. Social Psychological and Personality Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/19485506231153442

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