Reality TV fuels people’s belief in the American Dream

By Matthew Warren

The “American Dream” is deeply rooted in the national identity of the United States. It promises that in the Land of Opportunity, any individual can climb the economic ladder and prosper through hard work and ambition alone. And yet, young Americans today are struggling to earn more than their parents did at the same age, and upward mobility in the US actually compares unfavourably to that of other industrialised nations.

So why does the idea of the American Dream persist? A new study in the American Journal of Political Science identifies one factor that has been overlooked: the influence of reality TV.

Reality shows have come to dominate US television over the past 20 years, notes Eunji Kim from Vanderbilt University. And her analysis shows that the overwhelming majority of these have a “rags-to-riches” storyline: they feature ordinary Americans who work hard to achieve great economic success. Think of something like American Idol: these are everyday people who put in a lot of work rehearsing and going through multiple nerve-wracking performances, before potentially receiving a life-changing record contract and several thousand dollars. And while these programmes are regularly among the most-watched shows, news broadcasts — which paint a more realistic view of the economic hardship faced by millions of Americans — get a much smaller proportion of the viewership.

So rags-to-riches stories are ubiquitous on TV — but does watching these programmes actually convince people that economic mobility is easily attainable? To find out, Kim’s team had participants watch a 5 minute clip from a reality show such as Shark Tank or America’s Got Talent, edited to ensure it retained its rags-to-riches storyline (for instance, the Shark Tank clip showed two young people pitching their business before getting a successful deal). Control participants watched a clip from a reality show that didn’t have a rags-to-riches story (they saw a woman learning how to improve the behaviour of her dog). After watching the shows, participants rated how much they agreed with four statements relating to the American Dream, such as “It is possible to start out poor in this country, work hard, and become well-off”.

The results showed that those who’d watched a rags-to-riches clip did indeed have a significantly greater belief in the American Dream. Interestingly, when participants were separated by party affiliation, this effect was significant among Republicans but not Democrats, suggesting that the kind of messages implicit in these TV shows may play into people’s existing socioeconomic beliefs. 

Kim also conducted a survey of 3,000 US residents, who again answered questions about their belief in the American Dream. They also rated the extent to which they believed success in life is related to various internal factors (such as ambition) and external factors (such as family wealth). Finally, they read a list of TV programmes and indicated which they regularly watched. These included 12 rags-to-riches shows, 8 other reality shows, and 10 sports programmes.

Participants who were heavy viewers of rags-to-riches programmes (regularly watching 6 or more of the shows) or frequent viewers (regularly watching 3-5 shows) had a stronger belief in the American Dream than those who never watched such shows. Heavy viewers were also more likely than non-viewers to attribute getting ahead in life to internal factors like ambition and hard work. And these effects held when controlling for the amount of other TV participants watched, so it wasn’t simply that these people were watching more TV in general.

Kim concludes that “rags-to-riches entertainment media are an important cultural force that promote and perpetuate beliefs in upward mobility”. And here’s the problem: if people mistakenly believe that hard work is all that is needed for individuals to make a better life for themselves, they may be less supportive of policies that could actually combat inequality.    

It’d be interesting to see whether there are similar links between watching reality TV shows and economic beliefs in other countries, including here in the UK (which may not have the equivalent of the American Dream, but ranks similarly poorly in terms of upward mobility). And, of course, there are many other factors beyond people’s media habits that influence these beliefs: for instance, being older or having immigrant parents were just as important predictors of belief in the American Dream as watching rags-to-riches shows.

Still, the work shows the importance of studying the sociopolitical messages implicit in TV shows — particularly in light entertainment, which has traditionally been ignored by researchers in favour of news and other overtly political media. “In this era of choice, entertainment media is what captivates hearts and minds,” Kim writes. “Its political consequences are anything but trivial”.

Entertaining Beliefs in Economic Mobility

Matthew Warren (@MattBWarren) is Editor of BPS Research Digest