Meritocracy and its Discontents   /   Summer 2016   /    Meritocracy And Its Discontents

Just Deserts

Why We Tend to Exaggerate Merit—and Pay for Doing So

Robert H. Frank

Image Source/Getty Images.

The rhetoric of meritocracy appears to have camouflaged the extent to which success and failure often hinge decisively on events completely beyond any individual’s control.

“Luck,” E.B. White once impishly observed, “is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men.” Today, the widespread faith in the meritocratic ideal has pushed that taboo well beyond the circles of the successful. Most people in modern democracies cling almost religiously to the belief that merit, and merit alone, leads to success.

But how important is luck? Few questions more reliably divide conservatives from liberals. As conservatives correctly observe, people who amass great fortunes are almost always extremely talented and hard working. But as liberals also rightly note, countless others have those same qualities yet never earn much, or even see much of a rise in their station or status.

In societies that celebrate meritocratic individualism, saying that top earners, celebrities, and assorted other winners may have enjoyed a bit of luck apparently verges on telling them that they don’t really belong on top, that they aren’t who they think they are. The rhetoric of meritocracy appears to have camouflaged the extent to which success and failure often hinge decisively on events completely beyond any individual’s control.

There are, of course, many people who are quick to acknowledge good fortune’s role in their success. Evidence suggests that those people are much more likely than others to contribute to their community and to support the kinds of public investments that created and maintained the environments that made their own success possible. They’re also substantially happier than others, and their gratitude itself appears to steer additional material prosperity their way.

Opportunity Counts

A few years back, I wrote a newspaper column describing studies showing that seemingly minor chance events figure much more prominently in life trajectories than most people realize.11xRobert H. Frank, “Before Tea, Thank Your Lucky Stars,” New York Times, April 26, 2009, Those findings, I suggested, have intriguing and sometimes unexpected implications for how best to think about the role of luck in life.

A few days after the column appeared, I was invited to appear on a Fox Business Network show hosted by Stuart Varney, a man deeply skeptical of the importance of luck. Ever the optimist, I agreed, hoping that he and his viewers might find food for thought in the evidence I would describe.

Wrong. From start to finish during the segment, Varney was in high dudgeon.22x“Luck Is the Real Key to Success?,” interview by Stuart Varney, Fox Business News, Fox Business Network, May 7, 2011, “Professor, wait a minute, do you know how insulting that was when I read that? I came to America with nothing thirty-five years ago. I’ve made something of myself, I think, with nothing but talent, hard work, and risk taking. And you’re going to write in the New York Times that this is luck?”

I tried to explain that that had not in fact been my message—that I’d written that although success is extremely difficult to achieve without talent and hard work, there are nonetheless many highly talented and hard-working people who never achieve any significant material success. But Varney’s display of anger persisted. “You’re saying that the American dream isn’t really the American dream, it’s not really there!” he shouted. I tried to explain that I wasn’t saying any such thing.

Varney: Am I lucky being who I am and where I am?
Me: Yes! And so am I!
Varney: That’s outrageous! Do you know what risk is involved coming to America with absolutely nothing? Do you know what risk is involved trying to work for a major American network with a British accent? A total foreigner? Do you know what risk is implied for this level of success?

And on it went, for more than six excruciating minutes. It was only in my taxi leaving the studio that I realized all the easy rejoinders I’d failed to deliver. Varney came to America with nothing? Nonsense! I’d read the night before that he had a degree from the London School of Economics, which has always been a formidable credential in the American labor market.

Handicapped by a British accent? Oh, please! Americans love British accents! The British geologist Frank H.T. Rhodes became the president of Cornell University shortly after I started teaching there in the 1970s. A friend once told me that Rhodes’s Oxbridge accent was much stronger during his later years at Cornell than when he had first arrived in the United States decades earlier. Certain other accents are socially disadvantageous, of course, and linguists have discovered that those tend to decay over time. But not the British accent.

Varney took risks? If I hadn’t realized it on my own during my cab ride from the studio, the implication of that remark would have been hammered home to me by several e-mail messages I received later that day from friends. Taking a risk means that a successful outcome isn’t certain. So if Varney took risks and was successful, he was lucky by definition! Too bad I didn’t have the wit to point that out during our conversation on the air.

Stuart Varney and many others insist that people who amass great fortunes are invariably talented, hard working, and socially productive. That’s a bit of an overstatement—think of lip-synching boy bands, or derivatives traders who got spectacularly rich before bringing the world economy to its knees. Yet on one point, Varney is largely correct: Most of the biggest winners in the marketplace are both extremely talented and hard working.

But what about the many talented and hard-working people who never achieve much material success? I often think of Birkhaman Rai, a young hill tribesman from Bhutan who was my cook long ago when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in a small village in Nepal. To this day, he remains perhaps the most resourceful person I’ve ever met. He could thatch a roof and repair an alarm clock. A skilled cook, he could also resole shoes. He could plaster a wall, after having made the plaster himself from cow dung, mud, and other freely available ingredients. He could butcher a goat. He could drive hard bargains with local merchants without alienating them.

Although he’d never been taught to read and write, there was almost no practical task in that environment that he couldn’t perform to a high standard. Even so, the meager salary I was able to pay him was almost certainly the high point of his life’s earnings trajectory. If he’d grown up in the United States or some other rich country, he would have been far more prosperous, perhaps even spectacularly successful. As Napoleon Bonaparte once observed, “Ability is of little account without opportunity.”

The Lake Wobegon Effect

But why do people, particularly many successful people, persistently undervalue the role of opportunity and chance in their success? That question will be my main concern here, and one answer emerges from research in behavioral economics, an exciting new field situated at the intersection of economics, psychology, sociology, and biology.

Some of the work in this field rests on people’s tendency to rely on mental shortcuts or rules of thumb. These rules are largely adaptive in the sense that the time and effort they save more than compensate for the possibility that they’re somewhat less accurate than more detailed calculations. But although heuristics work reasonably well much of the time, they also produce systematic errors in judgment and attribution in some contexts.

For present purposes, of special interest is how behavioral research has informed our thinking about the tendency to hold persistent false beliefs. Why, for example, do many more than half of us believe ourselves to be in the top half of any given talent distribution? And why do so many of us downplay luck’s importance in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary? One plausible explanation, I’ll argue, is that people with more realistic beliefs about their talents and about luck’s importance may actually find it more difficult to muster the will to overcome the obstacles that litter every path to success.

The economist Paul Samuelson once said, “Never underestimate the willingness of a man to believe flattering things about himself.” Samuelson was not a behavioral economist, but he clearly recognized that people’s self-assessments were often higher than warranted by objective evidence. In surveys, for example, more than 90 percent of people describe themselves as above-average drivers. The same self-assessment was reported by more than 80 percent of drivers surveyed while they were in the hospital recovering from accidents, many of which they had surely caused themselves.

In many other domains as well, we appear to embrace implausible beliefs about how good we are. Almost 70 percent of the faculty surveyed at one university believed themselves to be in the top 25 percent of their colleagues with respect to teaching ability.33xPatricia Cross, “Not Can but Will College Teachers Be Improved?” New Directions for Higher Education 17 (1977): 1–15. And another survey found that 87 percent of students in an elite MBA program believed that their academic performance placed them in the top half of their class.44xEzra W. Zuckerman and John T. Jost, “What Makes You Think You’re So Popular? Self-Evaluation Maintenance and the Subjective Side of the ‘Friendship Paradox,’” Social Psychology Quarterly 64, no. 3 (2001): 207–23.

This pattern has been called the Lake Wobegon effect, after Garrison Keillor’s mythical Minnesota town where “all the children are above average.” The pattern is typically more pronounced for traits or characteristics that are difficult to measure objectively, such as driving ability. Only 2 percent of high school students in one survey said they had below-average leadership ability, and virtually all rated themselves as better than average at getting along with others.55xCollege Board, Student Descriptive Questionnaire (Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 1976–77).

Another disconnect between evidence and belief is people’s tendency to underestimate good fortune’s role in success, while being too quick to embrace bad luck as an explanation of failure. The statistician Nassim Taleb, for example, describes this tendency as common among investors.66xNassim Nicholas Taleb, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (London, England: TEXERE, 2001). Some have attributed it to so-called motivated cognition: People want to feel good about themselves, and they’re more likely to enjoy the warm glow of a positive self-image if they think of themselves as highly competent and attribute their failures to events beyond their control.

In a 1979 paper subtitled “Sadder but Wiser,” the psychologists L.B. Alloy and L.Y. Abramson provided some support for this theory.77xL.B. Alloy and L.Y. Abramson, “Judgment of Contingency in Depressed and Nondepressed Students: Sadder but Wiser?” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 108 (1979): 441–85. Alloy and Abramson challenged the then-conventional view that depressed people suffered from cognitive biases that led them to embrace unrealistically negative beliefs about the world and themselves.88xA.T. Beck, Depression: Clinical, Experimental, and Theoretical Aspects (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1967). In place of that theory they offered their “depressive realism” hypothesis, according to which the assessments of depressed persons were actually more accurate than those of ostensibly normal people.

This hypothesis grew out of experiments comparing the self-assessments of a group of clinically depressed students with those of a control group that was not suffering from depression. Subjects in each group were asked to perform a variety of tasks, then rate themselves on how well they had done. The self-assessments of the depressed students closely tracked the assessments of external observers. But the students who are not depressed consistently overestimated the quality of their own performance on tasks they did successfully, and underestimated the importance of their own performance on tasks they did poorly.

The paper by Alloy and Abramson stimulated considerable discussion, and there is still no robust consensus on its findings. But even those who interpret those findings to imply that holding false beliefs makes people happier in the short run will want to remain open to the possibility that such beliefs may entail significant costs in the long run.

That possibility is underscored by Charles Darwin’s insight that natural selection did not forge our nervous systems to make us happy, but to spur behaviors that promote survival and reproduction. People who believe they’re destined to win any contest they enter may enter many contests they shouldn’t, incurring costs they could have avoided. Those who are overly prone to attribute their failures to bad luck may be unreceptive to the kinds of feedback needed to improve future performance. Neither of these tendencies appears likely to promote reproductive success. So even if inaccurate beliefs tend to make people happier, those happy people might have been a little more successful, in purely material terms, if their beliefs had tracked the truth more closely.

What about false beliefs about luck? Why do so many people still insist that chance events don’t matter? By emphasizing talent and hard work to the exclusion of other factors, successful people may be trying to reinforce their claim to the money they’ve earned. A more charitable view is that denying the importance of luck may actually help people summon the formidable efforts generally required for success.

In almost any field, thousands of hours of hard practice are required to become an expert.99xK. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” Psychological Review 100, no. 3 (1993): 363–406. Hard practice means repeatedly trying and failing before managing to achieve even marginal extensions of skills you haven’t yet mastered. It’s generally difficult to summon the effort to do that. If you’re focused on luck’s importance, you may be more likely to think of excuses to avoid that effort and instead hope that fate will intervene on your behalf. So if it becomes easier to tackle difficult tasks if you believe that talent and effort are all that matter, then denying luck’s importance may be adaptive.

The findings of attribution theory in psychology offer some support for this possibility.1010xAttribution theory in psychology attempts to explain how people use information to arrive at causal explanations for events. It’s been shown, for instance, that students are more likely to persist with difficult academic tasks if they view any resulting success as having stemmed primarily from their own abilities and efforts.1111xBernard Weiner, Achievement Motivation and Attribution Theory (Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press, 1974). Given that exceptional ability is a persistent personal trait, such beliefs encourage continued hard work in the future. Embracing effort as a cause of success makes sense for similar reasons, since it’s under one’s own control and could hence be recruited to promote future success.

Similar reasoning suggests why attitudes about luck’s role in failure also matter, but in the opposite way. If past failures are viewed as having resulted from bad luck, there’s no presumption that future endeavors will be similarly handicapped, and thus no reason to avoid trying hard when new opportunities arise.1212xDaniel H. Robinson, Janna Siegel, and Michael Shaughnessy, “An Interview with Bernard Weiner,” Educational Psychology Review 8, no. 2 (1996): 165–74.

Our understanding of human cognition suggests additional reasons for the tendency to underestimate luck’s role in success. One of the rules of thumb people often use when making judgments is the so-called availability heuristic. This heuristic suggests that when we construct narratives about how the world works, we rely more heavily on information that happens to be more accessible from memory. But that almost guarantees that our accounts will be biased, since some types of information are far more readily accessible than others, irrespective of their relevance. Information about things we’ve experienced repeatedly, for example, is far more salient than information about things we’ve only heard or read about infrequently. Even important information in the latter category has a much harder time breaking through.

Little wonder, then, that when smart, hard-working people strike it rich, it’s completely natural for them to ascribe their success to talent and hard work alone. Most of them, after all, are vividly aware of how hard they’ve worked and how talented they are. They’ve been working hard and solving difficult problems every day for many years. They probably also know, in some abstract sense, that they might not have done as well in some other environments. Yet their day-to-day experiences provide only infrequent reminders to reflect on how fortunate they were not to have been born in, say, a strife-riven country like Zimbabwe.

That we tend to overestimate our own responsibility for whatever success we’ve enjoyed in life is not to say that we shouldn’t take pride in our accomplishments, even those that would never have occurred without the help of lucky breaks or other external events. That’s because pride in one’s achievements is often one of the most powerful motivations to expend the effort it takes to succeed.

Our Crumbling Infrastructure

If you share my view that material prosperity is a good thing, there is one dimension of personal luck that transcends all others, which is to have been born in a highly developed country. No matter how talented and ambitious you may be, material success is only a remote possibility in the world’s poorest countries.

Of course, individuals can’t choose the environment into which they’re born. But society as a whole can mold that environment in significant ways. Doing so, however, requires high levels of investment. We who were born in highly developed countries are thus the lucky beneficiaries of centuries of intensive investment by those who came before us.

In recent decades, however, those investments have been depreciating. A 2013 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that the United States faced a $3.6 trillion backlog in essential infrastructure maintenance.1313xAmerican Society of Civil Engineers, 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, Crumbling roads and unsafe bridges are common across the country, as are failing water and sewage systems. Millions live downstream from dams that could collapse at any moment. Countless school buildings are in disrepair.

Even more troubling, support for public education has diminished sharply in recent decades. Using data on revenue and spending from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Delta Cost Project Database,1414xDonna M. Desrochers and Steven Hurlburt, Trends in College Spending: 2001–2011, American Institutes for Research (2014), one carefully documented study estimated that state funding cuts had accounted for roughly 80 percent of the increase of more than $3,000 in average annual tuition at public four-year universities from 2001 to 2011.15 More than 70 percent of students who graduated from four-year colleges in 2014 had student loans that averaged $33,000.1515xRobert Hiltonsmith, “Pulling Up the Higher-Ed Ladder: Myth and Reality in the Crisis of College Affordability,” Demos, May 5, 2015,

More worrisome still has been the pattern of reduced investment on behalf of children in low-income households. The parents of children higher on the income ladder have the means to compensate for budget and program cutbacks that have been occurring in the public schools. They can send their children to private schools, or pay for private music lessons, athletic coaching, and SAT prep courses. Or they can enroll their children in pay-for-play programs in the public schools. Those options are beyond the reach of low-income households.

The Cognitive Errors of Our Ways

No one disputes that a mix of public and private consumption is necessary for people to achieve basic goals. But for much of the last century, the American economy has exhibited a persistent bias in favor of private over public consumption. The nature of the bias is clearly illustrated by the example of our spending on cars and roadways. Cars would of course be of little use without roads, and roads would be of little use without cars. But there is much disagreement about what constitutes the most desirable mix of expenditures on the two. Americans are buying the best cars ever produced, but they are driving them on roads riddled with potholes. This suggests that our current balance between cars and roads is far from optimal.

Because additional expenditures on cars, beyond some point, produce only marginal improvements in performance, we could spend less on cars without giving up much of value, freeing up money that could better maintain the roads. The result would be a significant improvement in the overall driving experience of almost every motorist. No matter how wealthy you were, you’d probably prefer driving a $150,000 Porsche 911 Turbo on well-maintained highways to driving a $320,000 Ferrari F12 Berlinetta on chewed-up roads. So why do so many wealthy drivers continue to favor lower taxes, even knowing that this means further degradation of the nation’s infrastructure?

Two cognitive errors help explain our tendency to underinvest in the public sphere. One is the seemingly plausible but essentially false belief that higher taxes would make it significantly harder for prosperous citizens to buy what they want. The other is the tendency, discussed earlier, for successful people to underestimate the importance of luck in their own lives. Both errors make it more difficult to perceive and appreciate the possible attractions of high-quality public services financed by higher taxes.

The first error was on vivid display during a lunchtime conversation I had several years ago with one of my colleagues. When he asked whether I’d heard about all the new taxes President Obama had in store for us and I said that I hadn’t, he expressed shock at my ignorance. I explained that it just didn’t make sense for people like us to worry about such things. When he asked why, I began by confirming that he agreed with me that there was no chance the government would enact tax changes that would threaten our ability to buy what we needed. (He and I are both authors of widely adopted textbooks, which in a town like Ithaca means we don’t spend nearly as much as we earn.)

I then asked whether he was worried that higher taxes would make us less able to buy what we wanted. Yes, that was exactly his worry! But since all our basic needs have already been met, the kinds of things people like us want are mostly things there aren’t enough of—say, a house with a commanding view of the lake, or a choice slip at the marina. To get such things, we have to outbid other people like us who also want them, people with similar tastes and incomes. So if the government raises our taxes, the taxes of those other people go up, too. And that leaves the bidding wars that determine who gets the things we want essentially unaffected. The best home sites and marina slips go to the same people as before.

In short, the effects of a decline in any one person’s after-tax income are dramatically different from those of an across-the-board decline. If you alone experience an income decline, you’re less able to buy what you want. But when everyone’s income declines simultaneously, relative purchasing power is unaffected. And it’s relative purchasing power that determines who gets things that are in short supply.

Since the vast majority of income declines that people experience—whether from the loss of a job or a divorce or a home fire—are losses that affect only them, the availability heuristic leads us to think of higher taxes as being just like other income losses. If you lose your job, you really are less able to bid successfully for a home with a view. But when everyone’s disposable income declines—as happens when taxes rise—it’s a totally different story.

Like failing to appreciate the distinction between unilateral and across-the-board income declines, underestimating the importance of luck is also a totally understandable tendency. As discussed earlier, when smart, hard-working people strike it rich, it’s natural for them to ascribe their success to talent and hard work alone.

Both cognitive errors also make it more difficult to raise the revenue needed to sustain the environments we were lucky to be born into. The prospect of paying higher taxes seems misleadingly painful because we fail to appreciate the importance of relative purchasing power. And overlooking luck’s role makes those who’ve succeeded at the highest levels feel much more entitled to keep the lion’s share of the income they’ve earned.

As economists are fond of saying, there’s no free lunch. But an apparent exception occurs whenever we discover better ways of doing things. Such discoveries make the economic pie larger, which is another way of saying that we can enjoy more of some things without having to settle for less of others.

Robust findings in the social sciences have identified a delectable free lunch that is ours for the taking. These findings show that normal patterns of human cognition cause most people to underestimate luck’s role in their success, which significantly reduces their willingness to support the public investments that made their own success possible. Studies also show that prompting people to reflect on their good fortune makes them not only happier and more attractive to others, but also more willing to pay forward for the common good.

My able research assistant Yuezhou Huo designed a simple survey that sheds light on how focusing on the importance of external factors can affect people’s willingness to contribute to the common good. She began by asking subjects recruited online from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk worker pool to recall a good thing that had recently happened to them.1616xPhil Izzo, “Congratulations to Class of 2014, Most Indebted Ever,” Wall Street Journal, May 16, 2014, She then asked one group to list external factors beyond their control that had contributed to the event, a second group to list personal qualities or things they had done personally, and a control group to simply list reasons why the good thing had happened.

Subjects in each group were paid a small fee for signing up and promised a larger bonus for completing the experiment. At the end of the experiment, Huo offered subjects in each of the three groups an opportunity to donate all or part of their bonuses to charity.

Subjects who’d been asked to recall a good event and come up with external causes—many of whom mentioned luck explicitly, or cited factors like supportive spouses, thoughtful teachers, and financial aid—gave more than 25 percent larger donations than those who’d been asked to offer internal causes to explain the good event. Members of that group mentioned factors like hard work, determination, and careful decision making. The donations of subjects in the control group were roughly midway between those of the other two. These results are consistent with those in a large body of research by academic psychologists who have studied how the emotion of gratitude affects people’s behavior.1717xAmazon Mechanical Turk introduction page, The general finding is that gratitude makes people not only happier and healthier but also more generous toward others. In short, a greater appreciation of luck’s role would make everyone better off.

Embracing Contradictory Views

Laboratory studies by psychologists also support the popular wisdom that liberals are more likely than conservatives to embrace the importance of luck in life.1818xSee, e.g., Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough, “Counting Blessings versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84, no. 2 (2003): 377–89; Nancy Digdon and Amy Koble, “Effects of Constructive Worry, Imagery Distraction, and Gratitude Interventions on Sleep Quality: A Pilot Trial,” Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being 3, no. 2 (2011): 193–206; C. Nathan DeWall et al., “A Grateful Heart Is a Nonviolent Heart: Cross-Sectional, Experience Sampling, Longitudinal, and Experimental Evidence,” Social Psychological and Personality Science 3, no. 2 (2012): 232–40. But there are numerous exceptions to this pattern, and the differences between opposing views are often far more nuanced than popular accounts suggest. David Brooks, the right-of-center op-ed columnist at the New York Times, captured the middle ground nicely in a piece published during the 2012 presidential campaign. He began by quoting from a letter he said he’d received from an Ohio businessman:

Dear Mr. Opinion Guy,
Over the past few years, I’ve built a successful business. I’ve worked hard, and I’m proud of what I’ve done. But now President Obama tells me that social and political forces helped build that. Mitt Romney went to Israel and said cultural forces explain the differences in the wealth of nations. I’m confused. How much of my success is me, and how much of my success comes from forces outside of me?  —Confused in Columbus

Brooks responded that the best way to think about the role of external forces depends on where you are in the life cycle and on whether you’re looking ahead or back. His specific advice to Confused in Columbus:

You should regard yourself as the sole author of all your future achievements and as the grateful beneficiary of all your past successes.… As you go through life, you should pass through different phases in thinking about how much credit you deserve. You should start your life with the illusion that you are completely in control of what you do. You should finish life with the recognition that, all in all, you got better than you deserved.… As an ambitious executive, it’s important that you believe that you will deserve credit for everything you achieve. As a human being, it’s important for you to know that’s nonsense.1919xFor an excellent survey of how views of luck differ along the political spectrum, see Dean M. Gromet, Kimberly A. Hartson, and David K. Sherman, “The Politics of Luck: Political Ideology and the Perceived Relationship between Luck and Success,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 59 (2015): 40–46.

Spot on, Mr. Brooks!

As F. Scott Fitzgerald observed, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” By that test, clear thinking about luck demands an extremely high level of intelligence, for it requires that we embrace the starkly contradictory views on the subject held by people at different points along the political spectrum. Fortunately, that challenge is made a little less daunting by the fact that both views incorporate essential elements of the truth.