Does believing in merit help (or not) students succeed?


We no longer count the books, films, advertisements, putting forward the idea that with the will, it is always possible to achieve success, even if we start from little. It is true that to think that with the effort and the will, one can progress, represents a real source of motivation for the school tasks. However, the talent and the efforts made by a student (his individual merit, therefore) are not the only determinants of academic success.

Social origin, gender, place of residence, presence of cognitive disorders, to cite only these examples, are all factors which we know also weigh heavily on the probabilities of academic success, the choices of orientation, duration of studies. However, none of these factors relate to the merit or lack of merit of the student.

Believing in academic meritocracy, that is, believing that academic success is the pure product of individual merit – of the efforts he or she has produced and of his or her talent – is not trivial. Indeed, although this belief is rather reassuring, on an individual level, it can also represent a significant obstacle to change and, in particular, to the promotion of equality at school.

Between control and responsibility

On an individual level, to think that the school is meritocratic is very reassuring for the pupils. From the point of view of the students who are rather successful, this means that they deserve their good grades, their diplomas, and later, that they deserve the relatively advantageous social positions to which these diplomas will have enabled them to reach. Surprisingly, this belief can also be reassuring for students who are more in difficulty or those who belong to stigmatized groups.

Indeed, believing that the school system is meritocratic is encouraging because it means that success is possible for all those who will give themselves the means. This gives the pupils back control and limits the risk of seeing a certain resignation appear in them. Indeed, research has shown that promoting the idea that anyone can achieve success with effort is beneficial to all students, but especially to students of lower socioeconomic status.

However, believing that merit is the only determinant of success in school can also have deleterious effects, especially in cases of repeated difficulties. Indeed, quite logically, the belief in meritocracy leads individuals to take responsibility for unfavorable results. Moreover, the belief in meritocracy reduces the propensity to denounce discrimination of which one is a victim.

Research has shown that fifth graders of lower socioeconomic status felt less able to succeed and performed less well at a school task than students of higher socioeconomic status, but that this gap tended to widen when activated. in their minds school meritocracy (that is to say, when they had been reminded that in school, to succeed, “just need to give yourself the means”).

Thus, believing in academic meritocracy, of course, gives students control but can also lead them to take responsibility for their failures, including when they are, in reality, not responsible for them.

A brake on the fight against inequalities?

Above all, thinking that the school is meritocratic can represent an obstacle to change. Indeed, believing that the school is meritocratic amounts to believing that the school system rewards in an equitable way the efforts and the talent of each one, that is to say that the system is relatively “fair”. But if we think that a system is fair, we have little reason to want to change it.

Much research has established that the more people think a system is meritocratic , the less they support anti-discrimination actions, the promotion of redistributive policies, and the more they find it normal that there are differences in wages and prestige. between individuals.

In a series of studies , we have shown that this belief in school meritocracy can impact the intention of individuals to act for the promotion of equality in school. We measured the participants’ willingness to see an “equalizing” educational intervention implemented in their own university (study 1, carried out on students) or in their children’s school (studies 2 and 3 carried out on parents of students) and their intention to become personally involved in this implementation.

To do this, participants were presented with a new teaching method and the results of research supposed to test the effectiveness of this method on school performance (see Figure 1). In all cases, the use of this method increased the performance of the students.

However, for half of the participants, this method was presented as “maintaining” in the sense that it increased the success of all the students while maintaining the performance gap of the students according to their social origin (figure 1, upper part ). For the other half of the participants, this method was presented as an equalizer: not only did it increase performance, but it also made it possible to eliminate the performance gap between students from disadvantaged backgrounds and students from privileged backgrounds (Figure 1, lower part).

The results show that the more individuals believe in academic meritocracy, the less ready they are to support the implementation of the equalizing educational method. However, this is not observed for teaching methods which maintain inequalities. Thus, these results support that individuals (here, parents of students) who believe that the school is meritocratic are not opposed to the change as such, they are only opposed when this change implies more equality between the children. groups (here, students from advantaged vs disadvantaged backgrounds).

A tool for legitimizing social inequalities

As we have seen, it is reassuring to believe that the school operates on purely meritocratic rules. Moreover, at school as in the business world or in society in general, meritocracy is one of the rules of distributive justice most accepted by individuals. Beyond its reassuring aspect on an individual level, academic meritocracy is extremely useful for us to account for the inequalities that exist, more broadly, within society.

Indeed, if the school is meritocratic, then this means that it rewards in an equitable way the efforts and the talent of each one. This therefore leads quite simply to neglecting the weight of other factors (in particular social origin) to explain academic success.

Academic success is itself strongly linked to the probability of accessing social positions of higher or lower status, this belief in academic meritocracy is likely, in fine, to lead individuals to think that society is fair. and that each occupy the position there which corresponds to what he is “worth”.

An inequality (for example, salary, prestige, rights, etc.) therefore no longer appears as an inequality, but rather as a simple difference that can be qualified as fair between more or less deserving individuals. In such a system, why would individuals be motivated to fight for more equality?

Author Bio: Celine Darnon is Professor of Social Psychology at Clermont Auvergne University (UCA)