The delusion of merit — hard work — talent

Oct 21, 2016 · 3 min read

We are in a competitive world today. Success in education requires enormous efforts, hard work and discipline.

Growing in such environment, it is often natural for people to think — ‘I deserve this because I worked hard.’

The corollary of this is the argument of meritocracy — everything should be by merit.

In such arguments, people forget the role of privilege in their success.

John Rawls's Theory of Justice gave a powerful argument against such arguments. In short, Rawls argued that there is moral arbitrariness in the initial conditions

  • The fact that the generation that you are living in values your talent is a matter of luck. For instance, in ancient world of Sparta, bravery and courage were extremely rewarded. In today’s world, it wouldn’t earn as much as those who do mental work.

A new research from Indian context on these lines has affirmed the second factor — the role of one’s identity in shaping one’s expectations and hence the drive to work hard.

Abstract of the paper — The Effects of Social Identity on Aspirations and Learning Outcomes: A Field Experiment in Rural India — below:

I conduct a field experiment in India to investigate whether the norms associated with one’s social identity affect one’s aspirations, beliefs, and eventual outcomes.

I exploit cues within the subjects’ existing environment to “prime” either caste or gender identity, thereby introducing exogenous variation in the salience of one’s social identity.

Randomly assigning whether a subject’s caste, gender or neither is primed, I first elicit long-run aspirations of adolescents (parents) for their (their child’s) future economic outcomes.

I find that girls have aspirations and beliefs that are biased downwards when gender is primed, while parents of high caste adolescents have higher aspirations and beliefs about income and educational attainment when caste is primed.

To investigate the effects of identity on real (learning) outcomes, I set up a learning camp at each school for ten weeks and elicit their aspirations and beliefs for each of the tests conducted at the camp, also recording attendance and test scores.

Girls’ aspirations and beliefs are significantly lower when gender is primed, and learning outcomes are worse. Priming caste makes males from upper castes state higher aspirations and beliefs.

These findings suggest that even in the presence of equal opportunity, one’s social identity may have direct, psychological effects on individuals’ beliefs, aspirations, and eventual life.

This is in line with earlier research

  • Beamen et al. find that presence of a female leader in a village (India) led to a decrease in the gender gap in adolescent aspirations, changed parents’ perception, altered education attainment and use. It highlights the role of identity in shaping aspirations and expectations and the existent differences.

This is not to suggest that merit shouldn’t be considered. The argument is that the role of privilege should also be acknowledged and that privilege comes in many forms.

We often tend to forget the role of privilege in our success and give excessive weightage to our efforts, hardwork.

Sometimes the only thing standing in between you and your success is the result of a God’s (if exists) coin’s toss — do you take birth in an affluent family of a privileged class (caste/race) in a liberal democratic society as a fully abled privileged gender OR do you take birth in a war wrecked country in an ultra poor family of an underprivileged class as a differently abled underprivileged gender.

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