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This is not to deny the industry and talent of successful people.

College-Admissions Scandal: What a Meritocracy Really Is - The Atlantic

However, it does demonstrate that the link between merit and outcome is tenuous and indirect at best. According to Frank, this is especially true where the success in question is great, and where the context in which it is achieved is competitive. There are certainly programmers nearly as skilful as Gates who nonetheless failed to become the richest person on Earth.

In competitive contexts, many have merit, but few succeed. What separates the two is luck. If the responder rejects the offer, neither player gets anything. The experiment has been replicated thousands of times, and usually the proposer offers a relatively even split. One variation on this game shows that believing one is more skilled leads to more selfish behavior.

The Lottery of Life

In research at Beijing Normal University, participants played a fake game of skill before making offers in the ultimatum game. Other studies confirm this finding. The economists Aldo Rustichini at the University of Minnesota and Alexander Vostroknutov at Maastricht University in the Netherlands found that subjects who first engaged in a game of skill were much less likely to support the redistribution of prizes than those who engaged in games of chance.


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Just having the idea of skill in mind makes people more tolerant of unequal outcomes. By contrast, research on gratitude indicates that remembering the role of luck increases generosity. Frank cites a study in which simply asking subjects to recall the external factors luck, help from others that had contributed to their successes in life made them much more likely to give to charity than those who were asked to remember the internal factors effort, skill.

Perhaps more disturbing, simply holding meritocracy as a value seems to promote discriminatory behavior. The management scholar Emilio Castilla at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the sociologist Stephen Benard at Indiana University studied attempts to implement meritocratic practices, such as performance-based compensation in private companies. They found that, in companies that explicitly held meritocracy as a core value, managers assigned greater rewards to male employees over female employees with identical performance evaluations.

This preference disappeared where meritocracy was not explicitly adopted as a value.

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Yet Castilla and Benard found that, ironically, attempts to implement meritocracy leads to just the kinds of inequalities that it aims to eliminate. Satisfied that they are just, they become less inclined to examine their own behavior for signs of prejudice. Meritocracy is a false and not very salutary belief. As with any ideology, part of its draw is that it justifies the status quo, explaining why people belong where they happen to be in the social order.


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It is a well-established psychological principle that people prefer to believe that the world is just. However, in addition to legitimation, meritocracy also offers flattery. Two years before his book was published, Alan Fox used it in an article in the journal Socialist Commentary.


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  4. When The Rise of the Meritocracy was finally published in , the word spread swiftly on both sides of the Atlantic, though it is fair to assume that most who embraced the term did so in the same superficial manner that Blair did in It is a meritocracy—we rise and shine by our own merit. Not only did he overlook the peculiarly British irony in which Young couched the term, he also missed out on an irony much closer to home: In , five years after the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools, African Americans were still being systematically denied equal access to education across the South.

    Even though the ironies of meritocracy continue to be glossed over, moments like this inevitably expose the tensions at the heart of the word and the concept it labels.

    Equity Before Meritocracy: Why We Must Create Opportunities Before Rewarding Accomplishments

    We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters theatlantic. Students sit on a bench near Georgetown University's main lawn. Ben Zimmer is a contributing editor at The Atlantic.