How’d You Get Here?

Understanding the Factors that Shape Your Life and the Your American Dream Score

Photo by Lauren Fleishman

Photo by Lauren Fleishman

What’s Your American Dream Score? Take the quiz. Share your score and story.

Editor’s Note:
Rachel Ruttan is a doctoral candidate at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. In the fall, she will be starting as an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research examines lapses in interpersonal empathy, as well interventions designed to help overcome these lapses.

A big factor that shapes how we think about the “American Dream” is our experiences. After all, who could better understand the challenge involved in moving from “rags to riches” than someone who managed to shed their rags…right?

Despite conventional wisdom that those who have “been there” should be best able to empathize and lend a helping hand, my research has suggested that this intuition is often very wrong. In a series of experiments, my coauthors and I found that people who endured challenges in the past (like unemployment or being skipped over for a promotion) were less likely to show compassion for someone facing the same struggle, compared with people with no experience in that particular situation.

The Limits of Shared Experience
In one study, we looked at people’s compassion toward someone struggling to overcome unemployment. Despite this man’s best efforts, he is unable to find a job, and ultimately ends up selling drugs to make money. We found that people who had themselves overcome unemployment in the past were less compassionate and more judgmental of the man than were people who had never been involuntarily unemployed or were currently employed. Instead of being more compassionate, those who have been there instead come to ask, “why can’t you do it, too?” From this perspective, having “moved up” may paradoxically prevent us from connecting with those who are struggling to do so.

Overcoming The ‘Empathy Gap’
A nagging question for me was to understand how compassion could be reignited among those who have already overcome some of life’s challenges. In ongoing research with Katherine DeCelles at the Harvard Business School, we’ve begun to empirically test the role of getting people to reflect on their life stories. We have found that getting people to think about the support they received in overcoming challenges (e.g., succeeding through help from other people), rather than reflecting on their own willpower or ability, increases compassion and prosocial behavior toward those currently struggling.

For example, in one field experiment, graduates of an MBA program were randomly assigned to receive one of three email messages. One group watched a video in which an MBA student described the value of relationships in helping students make it through the MBA program; a second group watched a video of the same student instead describing the value of hard work and effort in making it through the program. In the final condition, participants simply read the e-mail message sent to the alumni in the previous year, explaining how and why to give to the business school. The results: Those who watched the relationships-oriented video were more likely to donate to the MBA program’s Alumni Fund compared with those in the other two groups. This boost in generosity was driven by increased compassion among this group.

Reflecting on How We Moved Up
Unfortunately, while beneficial for fostering compassion, this process of reflecting on the helping hands that we’ve received is not one in which people naturally engage. In fact, 86% of Americans surveyed selected “hard work” as the number one means by which people can climb out of poverty and “make it” in America (The Invisible Dream, 2012). Similarly, in our first study, we asked a group of ex-smokers to select the factors that most facilitated their ability to quit smoking successfully. A majority (78%) selected reasons that focused on themselves (e.g., “my willpower,” “my hard work”), and only the remaining 22% selected relationship-oriented reasons (e.g., “help and support from the people in my life”).

A major advantage of the Your American Dream Score calculator is the way in which the feedback is designed to get people to reflect on the help they’ve received in a non-threatening manner. A big psychological barrier to getting people to acknowledge the help they’ve received is that we like to feel in control of our fates—having succeeded through our will and guile means that we’ll likely overcome future challenges just as well. The feedback provided by the tool readily acknowledges how people have contributed to their own American Dream, but also simultaneously encourages them to take a moment to be grateful for the help they’ve received along the way. Our work suggests that this simple act of reflecting on how others have contributed to one’s “American Dream” may help bridge the gap.



Your American Dream Score is an initiative of Moving Up, an online platform designed to create a new conversation about what it takes to get ahead in America.  Both were created by Bob McKinnon, author and founder of GALEWiLL, an organization that designs social change programs. Digital design for the tool was done by Sol Design.

Your American Dream Score asks respondents to answer 13 questions about their life. Each question represents a factor that research shows correlates to social mobility and/or happiness in life. Similarly, all of the options within each question are also based on specific research related to mobility or positive life outcomes.  Once completed they receive a composite score and a list of factors working for and against them.  The higher your score, the more you had to overcome.  The lower the score, the more you had working in your favor. People are also given a link to a song that symbolizes their journey (i.e. gratitude, struggle, pride). With score in hand, people are then encouraged to take an action —  including sharing it with others, thanking those that helped them get ahead, diving deeper into each factor and connecting them with organizations that help people move up in life.

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