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What Makes People Ambivalent About Social Inequality?

Most Americans believe in meritocracy, even when it goes against their own self-interest.


Back during the campaign-fueled summer of 2012, there was a moment when American politics revolved around the phrase, "You didn't build that." Though it's doubtful historians will look upon the period as a shining moment of serious political discourse, President Obama's oft-repeated words did highlight the critical ideological fault line of American meritocracy. To what extent do public goods or inherited privileges contribute to individual success? How should we compensate those who were born without such privileges? The answers to these questions ultimately determine how people view the role of government, and thus both political parties have a grave interest in how people perceive meritocracy in America.

At the moment, there's a comfortable level of support for the idea that people are wholly responsible for their success. One recent poll found that a majority of Americans agree that the rich deserve their wealth—it’s taboo for politicians to even say the word "redistribution.” In fact, as Obama learned, there are quite a few meritocracy-related rhetorical red lines that will induce a backlash if crossed. It would appear that the United States' centuries-old reputation as the land of opportunity has left its residents with the belief that hard work is necessary and sufficient for success.

Psychologically, it would be comforting to reject the idea of meritocracy and blame your low or middling status on the conditions into which you were born.

Yet it seems odd that public opinion has settled on this state of affairs. Psychologically, it would be comforting to reject the idea of meritocracy and blame your low or middling status on the conditions into which you were born. Furthermore, a focus on the advantages of people born into wealth would lead to a stronger social safety net and more funding for public education and health care. That's not to say that every person in the 99 percent is a sap if they’re not a socialist, but it seems like there are a lot of good reasons for public opinion to be more skeptical of the idea of American meritocracy.

What might motivate people to believe in meritocracy, even when it seemingly goes against their own self-interest?

One answer comes from a new study by the University of Maine's Shannon McCoy. McCoy analyzed survey responses about different beliefs from two different groups of participants. The first group consisted of over 500 undergraduates. The second group included nearly 600 women from around San Francisco who had been recruited to take part in a study on women’s health. McCoy found that, among both groups, believing in meritocracy is associated with higher well-being, and that this relationship arises because meritocratic beliefs make people feel that they have more control over their lives. While it’s difficult to be certain about causality—it's possible something that raises well-being (e.g. getting a promotion) causes people to believe in meritocracy—it seems likely that at the very least, there is causality in both directions.

The finding is fairly intuitive. If you believe the key to successful entrepreneurship is hard work rather than seed investments from your uncle’s wealthy friends, then you don't have to worry that your dream is unattainable because all of your family’s connections are poor. You still believe you have full control over what happens, and you’re happier because of it.

Research on "system-justification" suggests another, more-general benefit to believing in meritocracy. Just as we are motivated to hold favorable views of ourselves and our group, we are also motivated to hold favorable views of the system we are a part of. For the wealthy, the comforts of everyday life repeatedly present evidence of a fair social system, and thus their system-justification motives are relatively weak. But people from disadvantaged or low-status groups are less likely to encounter evidence of how great the system is—say, by having access to an excellent public school—and thus have a stronger motivation to justify the social system.

The result is that low-status people often endorse beliefs that reflect poorly on themselves or work against their self-interest. For example, in a study (PDF) led by the University of Washington’s Elizabeth Haines, participants were told another group of students would be evaluating their performance on a task. They were then given reasons for the other group’s authority that ranged from the legitimate (“they have more experience”) to the illegitimate (“they are friends with the principal investigator.”) When participants were later asked to recall why the other group had power over them, they remembered the reasons as being more legitimate than they had actually been. The motivation to justify the system led participants to inaccurately believe they deserved their relative lack of power.

In another study, New York University’s John Jost examined responses in the General Social Survey that related to inequality. Jost, a professor of both psychology and politics, found that low-income people were more likely than those with higher incomes to agree that large income disparities were necessary for encouraging hard work. In a follow-up analysis, Jost found that African Americans and low-income people were more likely to say that inequality was necessary for generating American prosperity. Once again, the motivation to justify the system led people to legitimize their low-status.

Some of the sentiments expressed in these studies may sound like testimonials from Paul Ryan's website, but such views are attractive because they legitimize the inequalities in the social system. The notion that we live in a meritocracy serves a similar purpose. It explains why things are the way they are without making people feel they're stuck in a screwed up system. When everybody gets what they deserve, you get the comfort of knowing there’s justice and order in the world around you.

The drivers of meritocratic beliefs are important not only because they help explain why beliefs about meritocracy are hard to change, but also because they suggest there could be unintended consequences from attempts to sway those beliefs. Imagine a coordinated Democratic campaign attacks the idea of meritocracy by highlighting how difficult it is for hard-working people born into poverty to attain a middle-class life. If the campaign successfully increases skepticism of meritocracy, it may lead to marginally more social spending and higher well-being. On the other hand, it may serve to decrease well-being by causing people to perceive less control over their lives. It's also possible that people who are convinced to abandon meritocratic beliefs will seek out other, less desirable system-justifying beliefs. System-justification motives can sometimes lead people to defend discrimination, and it would be counter-productive if weaker beliefs in meritocracy led to more intolerance.

The broader lesson is that important beliefs about the world are connected to a web of different motivations. (Another example is the way the motivation to avoid death anxiety drives beliefs about the necessity of cultural practices.) When those beliefs change, there can be a ripple effect. None of this is to say that as a society we shouldn't strive to shift beliefs and policies in a beneficial direction whenever we see an opening. But it's important to be mindful that if you do manage to change a person's beliefs, there may be unintended consequences.