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Does upward mobility harm trust?

On The June 26, 2017

Rémi Suchon

Team Director - Marie Claire Villeval

Abstract :

In this paper, we design an economic experiment aiming at capturing the main traits of upward social mobility and measure its impact on behaviors in a trust game (Berg et al., 1995). Upward mobility is a form of social mobility according to which an individual from a low status group is promoted to a high status group. In some developed societies, this upward mobility is still relatively rare and inherited group membership strongly predicts one’s final position in the social hierarchy. An example of upward mobility is a child from a blue-collars family who ends up surgeon. While this situation is possible, it remains rare. Upward social mobility has long been considered a cornerstone of modern democracies because preserving some opportunities for every members of the society is pivotal in preserving social stability (de Tocqueville, 1835; Acemoglu et al., 2016), and because it’s a fundamental component of a widespread notion of justice (Sen, 1980). In this paper, we focus on the effects of upward mobility on a specific expression of social preferences: interpersonal trust. Trust is a very important dimension of social capital, because in most economic interactions, agents have to trust each others (Arrow, 1972). Interestingly, while trust and social mobility seem both desirable, there is some evidence outside economics that upward mobility disrupts social preferences. For instance, some papers
in social psychology suggest based on survey data and qualitative analysis that mobile individuals are often disapproved by left-behinds and not considered as equal by the members of the achieved group (Derks et al., 2015; Kulich et al., 2015). We find that Upward Mobile individuals tend to trust less. This effect is driven by interactions with individuals from their own background. We nuance this pessimistic result by our second finding: upwardly mobile individuals experience nobless oblige. When trusted, they behave more often according to more acceptable norms of trustworthiness.