A belief in meritocracy is not only false: it’s bad for you
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Meritocracy is a leading social ideal where the rewards of life - money, power, jobs - are distributed according to skill and effort. It is often referred to as 'creating a level playing field' where players can rise to the position that fits their merit.
Meritocracy is often presented as the opposite of systems such as hereditary aristocracy, where your social position is determined by birth.
Most people think the world is meritocratic. 84 % of people in the UK believe that hard work is essential for getting ahead, and 69 % of Americans believe that people are rewarded for intelligence and skill.
Although this view is widely held, it is demonstrably false. Talent and the capacity for determined effort depend on one's genetic makeup and upbringing. Fortuitous circumstances figure into every success story. There are programmers as skilful as Gates who failed to become the richest person on Earth. Many have merit, but few succeed. What separates the two is luck.
Research in psychology and neuroscience suggests that believing in meritocracy makes people more selfish, less self-critical, and more prone to acting in discriminatory ways.
Multiple studies found that subjects who are made to believe that they had won based on skill made them more prone to be tolerant of unequal outcomes. By contrast, remembering the role of luck increased generosity.
The 'even playing field' metaphor is used to avoid unfair inequalities based on gender, race, etc. Ironically, attempts to implement meritocracy leads to the inequalities that it aims to avoid.
This 'paradox of meritocracy' happens because adopting meritocracy as a value convinces people that they deserve what they have. They become less inclined to examine their own behaviour for signs of prejudice.
As with any ideology, meritocracy justifies the status quo, explaining why people are in a specific place in the social order.
Meritocracy also offers flattery. When success is determined by merit, each win can be viewed as a reflection of one's own virtue and worth. Material wealth is viewed as personal superiority, while worldly failures become signs of individual defects and a reason why they deserve to remain there.
Debates about the extent to which specific individuals are 'self-made' over the effects of various forms of 'privilege' can be very heated.
It is not just about who gets to have what, but about how individuals validate and take credit for their successes. Proposing that success is the result of 'luck' can be highly insulting and downplay the existence of individual merit.
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