The illusion of merit: perceptions of effort and talent at work


There is a growing enthusiastic view of meritocracy. We aspire to meritocratic societies, where the most talented people occupy the most responsible positions, thus allowing social mobility. Therefore, meritocracy is a classification system that orders people according to their merits, and for this, equal opportunities are necessary in all fields, starting with access to education.

In recent decades there have been many political defenders of the meritocratic argument. It makes sense to think that a meritocratic society is more desirable than an aristocratic or one based on favoritism.

However, it is interesting to also listen to his critics. We must remember that Michael Young himself , who popularized the concept of meritocracy in his dystopian novel The Triumph of Meritocracy 1870–2034 , was satirizing a future society organized on intelligence and merit alone.

Another of today’s great thinkers who invites us to think critically about meritocracy is Michael Sandel , a professor of political philosophy at Harvard.

Is meritocracy fair?

A first big criticism of meritocracy is in terms of fairness. According to Sandel , even if the meritocratic system were perfect and fair, it would always generate losers and winners. Meritocracy doesn’t care that there are losers, what matters is that the ranking system is transparent. Therefore, for Sandel the meritocratic project in terms of justice is relatively poor.

A second big criticism is related to the merit of the winners: do the winners really earn their position? It could also be formulated in reverse: do losers really earn their position?

According to Sandel, not quite. The importance of elements such as the affection received (yes, affection), the cultural and economic level of the fathers and mothers, the reproduction mechanisms that sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Jean -Claude Passeron or the historical moment that values ​​some talents and not others. I mean, would a basketball player in the Middle Ages have been appreciated?

Pride and frustration

In addition, according to Sandel, the meritocratic belief generates two attitudes that do not improve a society: meritocratic arrogance (among the winners), and frustration and resentment (among the losers).

As Sandel indicates, for someone who has made an effort and has stayed in the queue, it is perhaps even more frustrating to live in a meritocratic society than to live in an aristocratic one, since if before the fault of the social non-mobility lay with the system Now it’s your fault.

Pure meritocracy puts all the emphasis of success or failure on the individual, generating excessive self-blame in some and false self-sufficiency in others. This self-sufficiency makes us narcissistic, it is an enemy of caring for the other. In a way, it dehumanizes us.

The illusion of merit, understood as an excessive real attribution of one’s own effort and talent made throughout the life trajectory that allows us to be where we are, is very well reflected in a CIS survey carried out in 2017 and full of interesting data: ” Inequality and social mobility” .

Cultural and economic capitals

When presenting my research, I wanted to understand what was the degree of perception of effort and talent according to socioeconomic origin. Basically I asked myself: do people who have grown up in favorable socioeconomic environments attribute their own effort and talent to a greater extent as reasons for getting their current job than other people with other realities?

The study published in the Spanish Journal of Sociology , on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Bourdieu and Passeron’s La Reproducción , performs two analytical exercises to answer the question, using visual maps, based on a technique very dear to Bourdieu: multiple correspondence analysis.

The first analytical exercise was to understand the relationship between the participant’s cultural capital and the economic capital of the participant’s family when the participant was 16 years old.

The visual map shows us an important closeness between both elements. Obviously, there are exceptions, and we all know bright students who did not have it easy, but the analysis indicates that those who grew up in a favorable economic and cultural environment can now enjoy higher education to a greater extent compared to participants raised in other environments.

Self-perception of effort

On the other hand, the second analytical exercise was to understand the relationship between current cultural capital and the perception of effort and talent in obtaining the last job.

The participants with greater cultural capital are those who reported with greater impetus that their last job was due to their talent and effort. With the data we have, we cannot know who worked harder, but simply which group gave more weight to their effort and talent in obtaining their current position and these were those educated in high socioeconomic backgrounds.

“I’m worth it” dehumanizing

This result forces us to think about whether such a relationship is real or illusory. It is true that a greater cultural capital can intrinsically entail the development of skills and abilities that in turn make it possible to obtain certain jobs.

But the thesis could also be true that participants with high cultural capital, consciously or not, overestimate, as Sandel indicates, the moral significance of the effort, simply because they are the winners of the meritocratic system. However, this place has not been earned only by talent and individual effort, but also, as Bourdieu and Passeron already indicated, by the weight of the social, cultural and affective context in which one grew up, as well as by the mechanisms of reproduction present.

If this is true, we would be generating an illusion of merit that, far from humanizing us, could have the opposite effect.

Author Bio: Marc Grau Grau is a Hired PhD Professor and Vice Dean of the Faculty of Educational Sciences and Researcher and Coordinator of the Joaquim Molins Figueras Childcare and Family Policies Chair at the International University of Catalonia