On Meritocracy

Meritocracy is the way of seeing the world premised on the fundamental (and fundamentally wrong) idea that whatever we end up with in life is what we’ve wished for, worked for, and therefore deserved. It is a traditional, almost religiously followed existential philosophy in the U.S., pervasive in American cultural and political discourse and also globally exported through the America-dominated media.

It is central to the narrative of the American dream and Protestant work ethics. Its origins lie in the Christian concept of God, and its closest siblings are determinism, providentialism, and the just-world fallacy.

It shows up in:

  • political slogans, like This country is the greatest country of the world because it’s the land of diversity and opportunity, In America you can go as far as your dreams and talent take you, America is great because America is good;
  • fast-food psychology lines, like Everything is figureoutable, When there’s a will, there’s way, It’s all about the mindset, You have 100% control over your life, and there’s no such thing as circumstance, Life is only 10% what happens to you and 90% how you perceive it;
  • toxic positivity messages disguised as spirituality, like Everything happens for a reason, The Universe has your back, All pain serves a good purpose, Hardships are how God/Universe/Karma is testing our faith and so on.

In part due to the dominating American cultural influence, and in part due to common history as Christian civilizations, meritocracy is ubiquitous in the Western culture. Its metastases can be seen even in the arguments of mainstream social justice movements, making their work bankrupt on their own terms.

And if you’re still not convinced – remember how many times in your life you as a Westerner have heard language like deserving and worth it in advertising slogans. L’Oréal didn’t create this tagline out of thin air. It just captured the cultural spirit rooted in our conditioning – and now that we’re in the third decade of the third millennium, it remains just as powerful.

I’ve been studying both cognitive and emotional implications of meritocracy for years, and here are key findings.

Cognitively, meritocracy is so commonplace because it doesn’t take a lot of intellectual effort to exercise. It’s just easy and plain and logical. It caters to the hardwired need of the human brain to create stories and make sense of how the world works – and for these stories to be chemically satisfying, they don’t have to have nuance, context, or be rigorously reality-checked. This is who’s good – and that’s who’s bad. Here’s what’s right; here’s what’s wrong. Meritocracy supplies these dichotomic visions with a rationale that’s plain, simple, and seemingly plausible. Rich people got rich because they’ve work hard, it says. Person X has a loyal spouse and healthy kids because they’ve gone to church every Sunday for one (two, twenty, fifty) years. If you extrapolate it from individuals onto collectives, it’s just as easy to fall for. America is (economically) powerful because America is (morally) good. Venezuela is poor because its people are lazy and subservient. Russia is politically corrupt because its people are stupid, drinking, and aggressive. I mean, absurd as these narratives become once we expose them and employ critical and contextual thinking, they’re easy to swallow and mentally digest because they’re logical. And in the West, because of our historical tradition of formal logic and its inherent fallacies, most people aren’t trained to differentiate between what’s logical and what’s true. Politicians, preachers, social media influencers and advertisers know how to leverage the shit out of it.

Would you vote for a president who'd say, Today, America is economically great because of historical contingencies, namely the aftermath of the two World Wars — but it wasn't that great all along, and it won't necessarily be?

I bet you wouldn’t. An honest politician makes a lousy politician. Likewise, a cultural leader who promotes critical thinking and genuine empathy is far less likely to gain millions of followers, podcast downloads, and book sales than someone who speaks from the same, good ol’ fairy tales about the world being a fair place, wrapping them in a modern, fancy language. The KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principle, reflecting the natural inclination of our brain to spend as little cognitive resources as possible on making sense of the world, lies at the core of meritocracy’s prevalence in the culture.

Emotionally, it gets even more dangerous. With the cognitive ease put aside, meritocracy is emotionally attractive for at least two reasons. First, as it’s closely related to individualism, it makes us feel licensed to believe that our successes are our own due – or at least mostly our own due. Combined with the first function of privilege — invisibility — it becomes the fuel for meritocratic hubris, especially among credentialed, upper-middle-class, urban Western intellectuals. Remarkably, meritocratic hubris is even more pronounced in people who make it to higher socioeconomic echelons despite having an oppressed identity. Examples could include black women or gay people who’ve made extraordinary success in highly competitive professional areas traditionally dominated by white straight males. Instead of acknowledging the random circumstances that played out favorably on their way – and thinking about thousands of people from their communities still left behind – they believe that their unlikely success happened because of their individual extraordinary talent and effort.

It denies the reality that no amount of extraordinary individual talent of effort can overcome the power of structural barriers.

Examples of this among American media personalities are countless.

And that leads me to the second reason. Meritocracy is so common because it grants us a way to disown our hustle for self-worth. By giving us a rationale to believe that some people are worthier (spiritually, morally, relationally) than others, it makes us feel worthier than others if we have achievements to back it up. In other words, it equates our self-worth with our achievements. Of course, this feeling is temporary and fragile – because as soon as random life events, or other people’s lived experiences that expose the reality of our unearned privilege, challenge the conviction that what we (and others) have reflects what we (and others) deserve, our self-worth collapses into smoking ruins. And here, standing the puddle of shame and scarcity, most people don’t give up on meritocratic thinking – they double down on it. They start rationalizing their own misery, ascribing a spiritual meaning to it (retelling the archetypal Job’s story), and going one step higher on the bullshitting spiral. Suffering becomes a merit in its own right, warranting a compensation from God or the Universe. And when the latter arrives, a strong emotional response follows, so instead of realizing it’s just as random as the preceding adversity, people have their meritocratic narrative chemically reinforced.

That’s how the vicious cognitive-emotional circle of meritocracy closes.

And here are the costs. Those are huge, both on the individual and collective level.

  1. Meritocracy moves us away from contextual and critical thinking. First, it keeps the focus tight on individuals and their alleged merits and failings, instead of recognizing successes and failures of systems and institutions. Second, it’s arguments are most often categorical, black-and-white, blown out of proportion and scope, and involve a great deal of moral judgment. It’s clear about what (and who) is right and wrong, good and evil, blessed and doomed. It leaves little space for curiosity. It gives answers to the whys, but silences the questions about hows. It doesn’t cultivate our intellectual capacity for the paradox – it suppresses it.

  2. Meritocracy sabotages empathy. It fuels judgment, prevents true perspective taking, keeps us in denial (and shame) about our privilege, and gives us easy-to-deploy tools that allow us to self-protect and, as a collateral effect, emotionally crush people who they [reach out to us with their tragedies] – by sympathy, rationalization, trivialization, or outright invalidation of their lived experience. As a result, we also turn away from recognizing the ways in which we can effectively help others, even when they are clear with us about those. Ironically, while meritocracy drives a gauntlet of false dichotomies in its arguments, its relationship with empathy represent one of the few true dichotomies out there: you either believe that everything happens for a reason, or you believe that everything, shit included, simply happens – and then we have to do something about it together.

  3. Meritocracy sabotages our sense, and practice, of collective and individual responsibility. When we believe that the world is inherently just, then we buy into the narrative that all problems will naturally sort themselves out sooner or later, without our active involvement. This idea is common in the Western culture, where most stories in books and movies have unequivocally happy endings, and even in the political rhetoric of civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King who famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Dr. Martin Luther King was a priest. As a social justice, forecasting and cognitive psychology researcher, I’ve unfortunately found no evidence to believe the same.

What I have seen evidence of – and I’ve seen it aplenty – is that our cultural belief in this “natural bend towards justice” effectively licenses people and institutions who hold real power to deny help and support to those who most need it, and to opt out of practicing the values that are eloquently professed on corporate Websites and electoral campaigns.

In reality, we can’t assess, in a scientifically reliable way, if Dr. Martin Luther King was right or wrong, because his argument specified neither a concrete time frame (How long is long?), nor a concrete definition of justice.

A less poetic yet more actionable truth we're left with is the understanding that both justice and injustice, at any given point in history, are human-made.

And making those is not the sole responsibility of politicians and other leader figures. We can, and do, create both in our individual lives, by treating other people and their lived experiences, in different ways. And the more we believe that the world is inherently just, the more we turn our backs on the justice we have ability to create with our own hands, the more likely we are to make false sense of our and other people’s struggles, and the more complicit we become in sustaining injustices run by systems.

Meritocratic thinking on the level of organizations is just as harmful as it is in the general culture.

Within the organization, it shows up as maintaining the notion that promotions and demotions consistently reflect the merits and failings of individual employees. It means lack of active monitoring for favoritism, bribery, complicity, and groupthink. It also means reinforcing the notion that people’s worth is defined by their rank or position in the system and therefore defined externally. This fosters animosity instead of collaboration, envy instead of trust, and greatly facilitates narcissistic abuse in the workplace.

On the outer side, meritocratic thinking obscures the ability to critically analyze the organization’s failures and successes amidst competitors. There’s barely a more dangerous idea than believing that your company has made huge profits this year because in some ways its morally superior to other market players – because if you disseminate this idea among your employees, even with the best intent of encouraging them, you will see the team morale collapse next year when you lose to competitors by a wide margin – and you’ll barely see anyone willing to reality-check the moralistic story and recognize market contingencies or random geopolitical events as factors defining this outcome.

A related consequences is that meritocracy, since it makes us focus on the why, and not the how, makes us unable to deconstruct the experiences of failure and success into small pieces of data and then separate those that we can learn from (and whose learnings can be embedded to improve our businesses) from those that contain nothing to learn from (guided by randomness or largely unpredictable causes).

Overall, evidence suggests that the less we use the concepts and the language of deserving and not deserving, both explicitly and implicitly, the more agility, critical thinking, and fairness we create in the corporate culture. Just like in case with power, when we make dismantling meritocratic thinking one of our organization’s priorities, our workplace can become the first place in our lives where a groundbreaking, countercultural paradigm enables people to grow to their full potential and best serve the cause they truly care about.

Discover the comprehensive historical overview, a political and cultural analysis of meritocracy in Michael Sandel's book The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good.

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