Can a focus on meritocracy do harm to a society?

Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is the title of one of the top-10 bestselling rap albums of all time by 50 cent. Mindy Small / FilmMagic
Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is the title of one of the top-10 bestselling rap albums of all time by 50 cent. Mindy Small / FilmMagic

Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is the title of one of the top-10 bestselling rap albums of all time. Like much of the gangster-rap genre, this 50 Cent album is a celebration of self-made millionaires with the drive and industriousness to kick down doors and build empires out of nothing. This is survival of the fittest, social Darwinism with samples and drum machines; a warped, profanity laden soundtrack to meritocracy.

As an alternative to egalitarianism (equal distribution of privilege) and hereditary privilege based on family connections, meritocracy seems like a fair and effective form of social organisation. If the best, brightest and most industrious are encouraged to rise to the top, then the leaders of our organisations will be talented, intelligent and indefatigably hardworking.

Moreover, meritocracy – at least in theory – leaves the door wide open for absolutely anyone to rise to the top. The only obstacle is yourself.

Meritocracy opens up a world of equal opportunities, but with opportunity comes uncertainty and the possibility of failure. If we admire and applaud self-made success, how do we feel about those who end up occupying the lower rungs of the social hierarchy? This is the ugly flip side of meritocracy. If success and high status are earned through merit, then failure and low social standing might also be viewed as being merited or deserved.

Many of us attribute our successes to internal characteristics such as talent and hard work. However, when we fail we often find external circumstances to blame: bad luck, fatigue, haters (the envious) and myriad other evil forces.

Psychologists call this trick of the mind “self-serving bias”. This bias is protective, but when it fails, as it often does, many of us can become depressed. If the self-serving bias works too well however, then we can become narcissistic or paranoid, angrily blaming others for our inability to meet our own, perhaps slightly overinflated expectations. This is meritocracy’s other face. As social creatures, we routinely compare ourselves to others, making comparisons about everything from physical appearance to social status. Historically, our reference group – the people we use for comparison – was fairly small and the degree of status variability minimal. However, in a world of mass media, equal opportunities and merit-based progression our reference group is much larger and the variability in status much greater.

At a high school reunion, for example, there might be internet billionaires, government ministers, middle managers and blue-collar workers cheek by jowl with the chronically unemployed, all reminiscing about their shared schooldays. Such status discrepancies within the same reference group give rise to envy, status anxiety and despair. For some, meritocracy ­fuels discontent.

Furthermore, as much as we might believe in the ideal of meritocracy, the reality is often very different. Stealth nepotism and cronyism still thrive within many meritocracy-professing organisations, adding injury and perjury to injustice.

Similarly, identifying merit can often be incredibly difficult. Sometimes the rewards don’t go to the meritorious, but rather to those who are best able to fake it, and those most skilled in the Machiavellian art of taking credit for other people’s work.

Being told that we can achieve anything – so long as we work hard enough – raises our expectations. Today, if we find ourselves at the bottom +end of the social hierarchy, with no VIP passes, it is going to hurt much more than it did in the days when our family names – Thatcher, Smith, Baker – set limits on our aspirations and expectations.

With high aspirations come dramatic failures, with raised expectations come crushing disappointments. We need to cultivate the psychological resilience required for life in our increasingly competitive and merit-orientated societies.

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University

On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas

Published: September 11, 2016 04:00 AM

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