How America’s Got Talent Reinforces the Myth of the American Dream

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I just went on vacation for a week and prior to leaving I stopped by my local used book store, which in my opinion is the greatest retail outlet a neighborhood can have, to pick up a sultry beach read. I landed on Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. You may think “Hey, Vonnegut is a Serious Author Who Does Not Write Beach Reads” but you are wrong. To me, the perfect beach read is easily readable: I don’t have a lot of vocabulary to look up, the plot is fairly straightforward, and I’m not totally thrown off if I’m interrupted by a volleyball bouncing over my feet. Vonnegut is PERFECT because he satisfies those requirements while at the same time being remarkably poignant and thought-provoking. And so on.

Anyway I mention this because one theme of Breakfast of Champions is about the inherent value of art and art’s ultimate impact on humanity. In the book, there’s another book – oh god, it’s a fractal, like my next video, which scarred me to make – anyway, there’s a book written by Kilgore Trout that is the trigger for another character to go off the deep end and take off on a violent rampage.

I’m thinking of all that not just because I recently finished the book and am still thinking about it, but because I happened across this related study: in Entertaining Beliefs in Economic Mobility, researchers found that Americans who watch more TV shows about characters who go from “rags to riches” are more likely to believe in the myth of “the American Dream”: the idea that it doesn’t matter where you start out; anyone can pull themselves out by their bootstraps.

So, just to lay this out there, the “American Dream” does not exist. I guess that’s why they call it a dream and not, like, “the American Reality.” But Americans definitely think it does: the Brookings Institution conducted an international survey of people’s feelings toward economic mobility, and they found that 2/3s of Americans, a higher percentage than any other country, think that “people are rewarded for intelligence and skill.” Only 19% of Americans said that coming from a wealthy family was very important to getting ahead. A lower percentage than any other country, about 1/3, said that it’s the government’s job to reduce income inequality.

Meanwhile, the United States is only competing with the United Kingdom in terms of how difficult it is to improve your economic circumstances. In those countries, 50% of parental earnings advantages are passed onto sons, which is a common way for economists to measure economic mobility. It means it would take an average of six generations for those advantages to disappear. Presumably that means six generations of dumbasses screwing things up. Just six generations of cokeheads or NFT investors.

In countries like Canada, Finland, Norway, and Denmark, only 20% of parental earnings advantages pass to children, meaning that a person born in one of those countries has a much, much better chance of achieving the American Dream. The Danish Dream, as I like to call it. The cinnamon apple Danish Dream. Mmmmm. Delicious economic mobility.

Many other studies using various methodologies have confirmed the fact that the US is one of the worst, if not the worst, industrialized country in terms of economic mobility. They further find that the US is unique in how “sticky” our top and bottom income earners are: “men whose

fathers have particularly low earnings are more likely than other men to have low earnings themselves, and men whose fathers are at the top of the earnings distribution are likely to attain that top status themselves.” The Brookings Institution particularly points out the stickiness at the bottom: “men born into the poorest fifth of families in the United States in 1958 had a higher likelihood of ending up in the bottom fifth of the earnings distribution than did males similarly positioned in five Northern European countries—42 percent in the United States, compared to 25 to 30 percent in the other countries. Furthermore, in the United States, only 8 percent make the “rags to riches” climb from bottom to top rung in one generation, while 11 to 14 percent do so in other countries.”

So the “American Dream” doesn’t exist, but Americans by and large believe it does. Why? That’s where this new study comes in. The overall conclusion is not exactly groundbreaking: we believe in this myth because the media we consume repeatedly, consistently sells us this myth. “Rags to Riches” stories have been an essential part of the American myth since our country’s founding, like in the wildly popular Horatio Alger stories from the mid 19th century. Fun fact, Alger’s first big hit novel was called “Ragged Dick.” Ha.

The new Ragged Dick is must-see TV like American Idol, America’s Got Talent, and Shark Tank, all wildly popular shows that are predicated on the idea of some poor unknown schlub being launched to fame and fortune thanks to their inherent talent and work ethic. In this new study, Eunji Kim, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University, writes that “trends over the last three decades suggest that people who watch a lot of television have become

more optimistic about the American Dream,” and while some experts blame biased news reporting, she suspects entertainment is a key factor.

So, she fitted a big box truck with TVs and armchairs and then drove around to farmer’s markets and other non-political events in my birthplace, the rural and suburban counties of Pennsylvania and South Jersey. She even stopped at Cowtown, South Jersey’s rodeo. Yes, South Jersey has a rodeo and it fucking rules. She paid people $10 to watch a TV show and then fill out a survey about their beliefs vis-a-vis the American Dream. Some people saw an episode of Cesar Milan’s dog training show, which, while gross and unscientific, has nothing to do with upward economic mobility. Other people saw an episode of Shark Tank, America’s Got Talent, American Ninja Warrior, or Toy Box, all of which ended with an unknown schlub achieving their dreams.

While the overall conclusion may not have been a shock – yes, people who watched the rags to riches shows were more likely to say they believed in the American dream – what is surprising is the strength of the effect. Kim writes, “watching a rags-to-riches program, even just for five minutes, makes people approximately 5.5 to 6.8 percentage points more likely to believe in the prospect of upward economic mobility. To put this into context, in the control condition for the lab-in-the-field sample, the partisan gap in belief in the American Dream is 10.87 percentage points. In other words, the treatment effect is substantial: more than half the size of the gap between Democrats and Republicans.”

Okay, I know it’s kind of a joke in international circles to say how American Democrats and Republicans are pretty much indistinguishable but I think we can all agree that the past 8 years or so have demonstrated that there are some distinct differences. This study was specifically done in places where they could get Trump voters in addition to the liberals found nearer to urban centers, which is, you know, why she went to Cowtown. It’s fun but yeah, that’s the first place I remember being sexually harassed at the age of 16 by an octogenarian cowboy who asked if I had Windex in my pants because he could see himself in them.

Anyway, yeah, watching just 5 minutes of a rags to riches show was enough to shift someone halfway out of their own professed political party. That’s a substantial result.

Kim ends by acknowledging the ongoing issues that also perpetuate income inequality and lack of upward mobility in the US: a deeply ingrained belief in the Protestant work ethic, news media that fails to accurately present reality to consumers, and politicians who fail to act in the best interests of their constituents. But she points out that sociologists need to take seriously the ill effects of the stories we are telling.

There’s no way to quickly “fix” this, but just knowing how easily we can be manipulated by these shows may be helpful to negating their effects. We’re all manipulated every day by the media we consume, but at least knowing about it can help make us savvier consumers.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Ah, Horatio Alger. Creditably accused of child molestation when he was 34 years old. Died penniless at 67.

  2. My hypothesis: Americans don’t get how wealth accumulates and concentrates because it involves non-linear math. Network growth by preferential attachment, iterated equations, feedback loops…Americans don’t understand systems like that. Same reason we’re so dumb about climate change, evolution and contagious diseases.
    I would love to test this hypothesis but I’m afraid it would depress the hell out of me.

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