Many Americans share strong beliefs in the importance of education, ambition, and hard work — what many refer to as “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.” New research by He Xian and Jeremy Reynolds investigates whether these beliefs are unique to western countries, like the United States. Xian and Reynolds chose China to compare to the United States since both countries have long, yet unique, histories of meritocracy.
The authors’ analysis draws on data from the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) and its associated country-specific surveys from 2009. Respondents were asked a series of questions about what is needed to “get ahead” in their societies. The analysis separated meritocratic elements — those that were based on individual efforts, like hard work or education — from non-meritocratic elements — those that were not based on individual efforts, like parental education or social ties to powerful people.
Both Chinese and Americans strongly believe that meritocratic elements are important for success. However, Chinese believed more than Americans that non-meritocratic elements are also necessary. Nearly twice as many Chinese agreed that having well-educated parents and “knowing the right people” are important for getting ahead. While a belief in bootstraps is not unique to Americans, other meritocratic nations may be more likely to recognize hard work can’t do it all.