12/04/2014 09:13 am ET Updated Feb 03, 2015

Revisiting the Land of Opportunity

"Our success should depend not on accident of birth, but on the strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams." So President Obama proclaimed in his 2014 State of the Union Address, adding: "Opportunity is who we are."

Yet in the same speech, just a few paragraphs before, the president acknowledged that the American Dream is elusive for many: "Average wages have barely budged," he noted. "Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled."

President Obama is not alone, neither in his yearning nor his gloom. Many Americans echo his view that economic realities are falling far short of the American Dream that defines our national ethos. Americans are losing confidence in the basic fairness of the system, and despairing of real opportunities for financial mobility. Indeed, fewer and fewer Americans, including many middle-class Americans, believe that they can even preserve their existing standard of living -- or that their children will do any better.

But how accurate are these perceptions? Is social mobility declining, and inequality growing in fact? Surprisingly, no research has actually checked the accuracy of these public perceptions. Americans seem to assume that there is less opportunity now than for previous generations, but is this the reality that most Americans actually face?

Saint Louis University psychological scientist John Chambers thinks this assumption is worth investigating. He and his colleagues decided to examine Americans' perceptions -- of both current levels of social mobility in the U.S. and changes over the years -- and to compare these perceptions to an objective analysis of the "land of opportunity."

First the reality. This information wasn't available until quite recently, and it comes in the form of a multi-decade analysis of tax records. Researchers compared the tax records of nearly 40 million Americans with those of their parents two decades before. These data allow them to assess changes in each American's economic position compared to their starting point in life. They also compared Americans born in different decades, from the early '70s to the mid-'90s, to see if there has been any shift in mobility over time.

The findings were clear. First, mobility has not declined over the years, and in fact has remained stable. That is, contrary to popular belief, it's just as easy for Americans to improve their lot in life today as it was in the past. And second, Americans actually experience a lot of mobility. For example, of those born to lower-class parents, more than half were upwardly mobile, moving into the middle or top rungs of the financial ladder.

So these are the economic facts. How do Americans' intuitions compare to this reality? Chambers and his colleagues ran a survey to see. They explored people's perceptions of social mobility in the U.S. -- the percentage who change social class. They also assessed their perceptions of historical shifts in mobility -- increases or decreases over four decades. The scientists also gathered data to see if perceptions are shaped by political ideology -- specifically, whether conservatives and liberals distort economic realities in different ways. Here are some of the highlights from their findings, as reported in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science:

Overall, respondents underestimated the number of Americans who change social class, for better or worse, and they overestimated they number who don't change class. For example, they assumed that only four in 10 lower-class kids moved up, and that the rest were stuck in their circumstances, but in reality these numbers are about half and half. Their intuitions about middle-class kids were especially distorted: Fully 65 percent of kids from middle-class backgrounds were socially mobile -- compared to the respondents' estimate of 46 percent.

The scientists also found significant differences in conservatives' and liberals' perceptions of social mobility. Specifically, liberals underestimated mobility much more than moderates and conservatives. This was true except for the American middle class. Liberals and conservatives had equally distorted views of middle-class mobility, but in the opposite direction. That is, liberals were more pessimistic about middle-class kids improving their lot, while conservatives were overly optimistic that these kids would not lose ground. Importantly, these misperceptions were the result of philosophical attitudes about the existing social system: Liberals tend to be more negative about the society in general -- and more opposed to hierarchies and inequality -- and this negativity leads to distorted perceptions of opportunity.

Americans also have distorted views of historical change in opportunity and mobility. Survey respondents said that social mobility had declined over four decades, when in fact it has remained fairly stable. And here too, ideology made a difference, with a greater proportion of liberals erroneously intuiting that things are getting worse. Again, social philosophy appeared to play an important part in shaping this pessimistic view of the American Dream.

Americans are not completely misguided in their pessimism. Overall, survey respondents judged -- accurately -- that Americans born into a given social class are more likely to remain in that class than to change. But they also underestimated the actual movement among classes, and they wrongly believed that things have gotten worse over the past couple generations.

The scientists suspect that this pessimism is fueled by the media's coverage of the economic downturn -- lack of jobs, wealth disparities, and the political debates about these issues. These are hard realities for many Americans. Despite Americans' fears about limited opportunity and widening class division, however, there remains greater mobility now than many seem to realize.

Follow Wray Herbert's reporting on psychological science in The Huffington Post and on Twitter at @wrayherbert.