The Socioecological Psychology of Upward Social Mobility

Shigehiro Oishi, Minkyung Koo, Nicholas R. Buttrick

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Intergenerational upward economic mobility—the opportunity for children from poorer households to pull themselves up the economic ladder in adulthood—is a hallmark of a just society. In the United States, there are large regional differences in upward social mobility. The present research examined why it is easier to get ahead in some cities and harder in others. We identified the “walkability” of a city, how easy it is to get things done without a car, as a key factor in determining the upward social mobility of its residents. We 1st identified the relationship between walkability and upward mobility using tax data from approximately 10 million Americans born between 1980 and 1982. We found that this relationship is linked to both economic and psychological factors. Using data from the American Community Survey from over 3.66 million Americans, we showed that residents of walkable cities are less reliant on car ownership for employment and wages, significantly reducing 1 barrier to upward mobility. Additionally, in 2 studies, including 1 preregistered study (1,827 Americans; 1,466 Koreans), we found that people living in more walkable neighborhoods felt a greater sense of belonging to their communities, which is associated with actual changes in individual social class.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)751–763
Number of pages13
JournalAmerican Psychologist
Issue number7
StatePublished - 2019


  • social ecology
  • upward mobility
  • walkability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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