The Rosy View Bias

How much does merit contribute to success? A rosy view is that success is mostly due to merit, while a dark view is that success is mostly not due to merit, but instead due to what we see as illicit factors, such as luck, looks, wit, wealth, race, gender, politics, etc.

Over a lifetime people gain data on the relation between success and merit. And one data point stands out most in their minds: the relation between their own success and merit. Since most people see themselves as being pretty meritorious, the sign of this data point depends mostly on their personal success. Successful people see a rosy view, that success and merit are strongly related. Unsuccessful people see a dark view, that success and merit are only weakly related.

In addition, successful people tend to know other successful people, and people tend to think their associates are also meritorious. So the other data points around people tend to confirm their own data point. The net result is that older people tend to have more data on the relation between merit and success, with successful people seeing a rosy view, and unsuccessful people seeing a darker view.

Since the distribution of success is quite skewed, most older people see a darker view. However, that dark majority doesn’t get heard much. Most of the people who are heard, such as reporters, authors, artists, professors, managers, etc., see rosy views, as they tend to be both older and successful.

Also, most people prefer to look successful, and so they prefer to look like they’ve seen a rosy view. Even if they haven’t, at least not yet. And a good way to look like you believe something is to actually believe it, even if your evidence doesn’t support it so much.

In sum, we expect the people we hear to be biased toward saying and believing a rosy view of the relation between success and merit. Of course that might be good for the world, if a realistic view would lead to too much envy and conflict. But it would still be a biased view.

Added 11p: Of course if they can find a way to rationalize it, we expect everyone to be inclined to favor a view where merit is a big cause of people reaching up to the success level where they are, but non-merit is a relatively bigger cause of people reaching the higher levels above them. When there are many success ladders we expect people to see merit as a big cause of success on their ladder (up to their point), but as less a cause of success on other ladders.

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  • ThaomasH

    Seems reasonable although in my own case (I think I am pretty successful) I am very much aware of the role of luck both positive (opportunities that equally meritorious people perhaps did not have) and negative (consequences of mistakes not suffered.) It colors my belief in the desirability of having quit high top marginal consumption tax rates and explains the feeling of many high income people that they are overtaxed.

  • bmritz

    Merit is an illusion. The only objective measure of merit is success.

    • Unanimous

      Success is not an objective measure of merit, that’s your opinion of what merit is. I doubt that a successful rapist ranks high in anyone’s views of merit.

      Merit doesn’t have a precise universally agreed definition, and there are a wide variety of opinions on what it means, but it’s not an illusion.

  • Dave Lindbergh

    Luck, looks, and wit are illicit? I’d think that looks and wit are part of merit; if they’re not, then what exactly is merit?

    And luck seems to me neither licit nor illicit – it’s just random.

    I thought merit had something to do with output, which (all things being equal) is a function of talent, training, and effort. Looks and wit fall under that.

    Don’t they?

    • Stephen Diamond

      What about this way of distinguishing: Illicit rewards are those that express market failures.

      • IMASBA

        You cannot define market failure without defining merit first…

    • IMASBA

      The output definition is a sensible one, it’s the most consistent and includes anything besides luck (factors that are not traits if you and that you do not have control over) and cheating the agreed upon rules of the system you work in.

      However, many people intuitively define merit differently, they attach special value to intelligence and discipline (you are somehow more “worthy” of success if you were born smart and disciplined than if you were born pretty or a smooth talker), I think that is culturally based.

    • truth_machine

      How do you measure the output of Saharan women and girls who walk many hours each day to fetch water for their families?

    • nope

      Charging people for something they didn’t purchase is illegal and immoral, it is stealing even if you do give the good to them, even if you trick them into agreeing with your contract. An analogy can be made to handsome and witty people who receive more money in services they’re paid for where looks and wit are not important. The main difference is degree of consent, but I think people are too dumb in this area for that to be an important factor.

  • efalken

    I find it interesting that many find famous people geniuses. Francis Crick made a good point when he said he was lucky to have an important soluble problem present itself when it did. Anyway, I’ve known lots of really smart people, and several very successful ones, and think the difference between the 99.99% achievers, and the 95% achievers, is mainly luck. There are lots of really talented hard working people out there, and the ones that hit home runs were in the right place at the right time (and talented and hard working). Of course, if you are in the 95%, you are successful by most accounts, but no one is writing a book about you.

    But on the other end, the homeless, tend to have really bad discipline, mainly with anger and drug problems. If you can show up for work, listen to your boss and customers, and stay away from drugs, you’ll probably not be poor.

    So, in the media top achievers are geniuses (no luck), homeless unlucky, whereas in practice I think it’s opposite: the homeless are undisciplined, and top achievers lucky.

    • RobinHanson

      Your comment inspired my added to the post.

      • efalken

        Heh. It could be that people more successful than me are smarter and less successful are unlucky–me being an average person without genius who wasn’t unlucky; and to think otherwise is self-serving. But I know several centimillionaires and even one billionaire, have met several people on skid row , and know many smart people whose IQs are several levels above mine who aren’t famous or wealthy, from which I made my inference.

        It doesn’t take much to be out of poverty: work at one job for a year, don’t have children before you get married, graduate high school, and your probability of poverty decreases by a factor 38. Those are choices, a function of discipline.

        I think you are too fond of genius, which I find rather accidental. Sure, in the arts it shines (Shakespeare, Brahms), but in things like engineering, economics, and finance, its not unfathomable, rather, it’s more yeoman’s work.

      • Robert Koslover

        A “centimillionaire?” That would be a person with more than ten thousand dollars, right? Did you perhaps mean “hectomillionaire?” 🙂

      • blakehoosier

        Centimillionaire= $100,000,000+ net worth

      • Robert Koslover


      • Stephen Diamond

        The “centi” prefix can mean either one. This is unfortunate.

      • RobinHanson

        I don’t recall ever favorably mentioning “genius.”

      • efalken

        At Northwestern where I got my PhD, two profs later got Nobel prizes (Myerson and Mortensen). They were smart and hard working, but no more so than 10 or 15 other faculty members there who chose fields that just weren’t as fruitful.

        As per the underclass, see the work of Dalrymple. Now, not all of them are making consistently bad choices (it’s a generalization), but their main problem is short-sighted, counter-productive goals.

        My point is that luck explains more of our super-successful people (who are very few), whilst luck does not explain most of the underclass (the larger, but still small, group living at the other extreme). 95% of us are in between.

      • Stephen Diamond

        1. You said some guys (these?) are much more intelligent than you. If they’re much smarter than you, you won’t be able to judge their relative intelligence (merit).

        2. The underclass (which is a far larger category than the “homeless” class you referred to before) develop values commensurate with the hopelessness of their condition. The question isn’t whether they make “bad choices,” which is Dalrymple’s take, I think) but whether better choices would make any difference; and whether the degree of optimality you demand of them would be within anyone’s capacity.

      • efalken

        1) well, I was basically talking about people I’ve met who I felt were smarter than me in some dimension. Several orders of magnitude was an exaggeration, because if true, I agree, I would have no clue how they thought.

        2) If you drink to forget you are are a failure, only to fail more, the most important thing you can do is stop drinking. Most working class people are successful in the sense of being responsible workers, parents and neighbors, it’s only a minority that go rogue, to their detriment.

      • Stephen Diamond

        Don’t want to be pedantic, but “several people on skid row” isn’t much of a basis for generalization, particularly considering the biases probably involved in those individuals having met you.

        Homeless people are most commonly crazy. If anything is “bad luck,” it’s being a schiz.

      • Peter David Jones

        In the arts genius is lot less accidental. Scientists and businesspeople often need an opportunity to present itself. Artists and musicians can produce quality work on demand.

      • IMASBA

        Are you serious? Success in art is THE perfect example of luck. There are many thousands of good artists in the world, while only a handful of artists are very successful and most of those aren’t even among the good artists.

      • efalken

        Good point. A good guitar riff is pretty powerful, sui generis, and if you know a lot of music the rest is filler and you can have a hit.

      • Peter David Jones

        I wrote genius, not success. We have examples of talented but unsuccessful people in the arts..but how do you even make sense of the claim that sons and so was a business genius who made no money.

      • IMASBA

        Well how do you make a genius movie or videogame without a budget and how do you even define genius in the arts?

      • Stephen Diamond

        Devise a test of “business intelligence”?

        [By similar means, you can attribute “social intelligence” to someone with no friends.]

    • IMASBA

      “So, in the media top achievers are geniuses (no luck), homeless unlucky, whereas in practice I think it’s opposite: the homeless are undisciplined, and top achievers lucky.”

      Yes, although what exactly constitutes discipline and merit or whether discipline is important at all depends on the era you live in. It’s possible today’s homeless would’ve been ok performing some line of work that doesn’t exist anymore or is rare today.

      • Stephen Diamond

        You end up falling into the same trap as efalken, which Robin neatly analyzed in his addendum.

      • IMASBA

        You can’t possibly know that about me (heck, I’m not even sure how much luck played into getting me where I am now) and I doubt efalken is only barely above homelessness on the societal ladder. he’s just saying it doesn’t take much to not be homeless and given how the vast majority of even very dumb or very ugly people succeed in not being homeless I have to agree with him.

        Of course from one of your other comments I see that you categorize being far out on the schizophrenic spectrum as being “unlucky” and then yes, everything is due to luck, in fact then there doesn’t exist any degree of merit at all, the term “merit” is then meaningless.

      • Stephen Diamond

        I don’t think Robin’s addendum implies that only those barely above the underclass (or the homeless, or whatever the standard is) will resort to rationalizing their superiority to the very poor while denying the superiority of the rich. It doesn’t just serve the aggrandizement of status; it also serves the to reduce the proponent’s sense of guilt.

      • IMASBA

        If there are multiple levels between the homeless and efalken (or myself) we could just as well be implying that we were lucky to get where we are, but that it is very easy to not be homeless. In the same way if there are multiple levels between efalken (or myself) and the very rich we could be implying that merit can still take you further than we are but not all the way to the top. Btw, thinking of this in terms of “guilt” would not be my reaction: if you are born with a penchant for addictions you have low merit but I can’t tell you that you just should’ve been born differently, to call you “guilty” would be a primitive response based on religious mythology.

        In regards to merit, I’d say it’s the combination of skills and effort, that does mean that people born with poor skills or motivation are left out (they have low merit, they are unlucky to have low merit but they have low merit). Luck then would be the difference between how successful you could be, based on your skills and effort, and how successful you really are in the non-ideal system you wish to examine (averaged over a large number of trials in alternate universes).

        I think that corresponds best to the idea of equality of opportunity (which the vast majority of people prefer over forced equality of outcome).

      • Stephen Diamond

        If there are multiple levels between the homeless and efalken (or myself) we could just as well be implying that we were lucky to get where we are, but that it is very easy to not be homeless.

        The last making it less a matter of luck that you got where you are.

        [That’s what I call an intelligently subtle signaling strategy. Not only is it unobtrusive, for the reason you supply, but you avoid offending those others below you who might count.]

      • IMASBA

        “The last making it less a matter of luck that you got where you are.”

        Since we haven’t discussed all the relative amounts of luck between all the different levels that doesn’t say much…

      • Stephen Diamond

        Come no, IMASBA! Think of the various grades of poor to mediocre to even very rich whites in the Old South (U.S.) who derived a sense of superiority from the position of black slaves (viewed as due to their demerit).

        It’s human nature to feel good about having way more merit than some small group.

      • IMASBA

        “It’s human nature to feel good about having way more merit than some small group.”

        It’s also realistic, if you don’t hear voices, are not a drug/gambling/alcohol addict and have an IQ above 85. Of course it’s also realistic to think there’s a group out there with higher merit than you. Mind you, I am not an American and do not speak from American experience.

      • Stephen Diamond

        It’s also realistic, if you don’t hear voices, are not a drug/gambling/alcohol addict and have an IQ above 85.

        I don’t get your point. Of course it’s realistic to an extent, but since it produces a desired feeling of superiority, it will be overdone. Which is my point (as we’re discussing sources of bias).

        [And it is overdone, not just in America, which shows that the appetite is insatiable rather than limited as you may be implying.]

      • IMASBA

        In my country only 0.2-0.3% of the population are homeless, a typical rate for Western Europe. I don’t think it’s overdoing anything to suppose that the vast majority of them have multiple serious merit-issues.

        And again, I don’t think anyone “deserves” to be homeless, merit carries no moral connotation for me, just an economic one.

      • Stephen Diamond

        I don’t think it’s overdoing anything to suppose that the vast majority of them have multiple serious merit-issues.

        But that doesn’t even address the narrow version of the question presented. The question is how common are multiple merit issues in those who aren’t homeless. (Affluenza, anyone.)

        [To give another example of this tendency: my comment that the white poor in America mostly have character issues, being based on direct observation, was no doubt overstated. (I say this a priori, based on the kind of bias involved.)

        Part of this is the fundamental error of attribution, which can be translated via construal-level theory as a far-mode bias. Those distantly below us (or above) are viewed in far mode, to the detriment of those below and benefit of those above (because the role of chance is minimized in far mode).]

      • IMASBA

        If you’re implying that there are trust fund baby who would’ve ended up homeless if it wasn’t for their rich family, or golddiggers who rely entirely on the success of their spouse, then I agree, but I’m not sure what would be the point of mentioning that. I’m not a golddigger or a trust fund baby, I’ve merely taken advantage of government programs that are available to everyone in my country, to get my education.

    • truth_machine

      “But on the other end, the homeless, tend to have really bad discipline, mainly with anger and drug problems.”

      Like you know any of these people. This is the sort of intellectual dishonesty, ignorance, and stupidity behind this “rosy” view. Most of the homeless are children and their mothers, many of whom have been jettisoned by bad men. Most of the people posting here have incredibly blinkered, elitist views that block out the vast majority of humanity.

      • Cahokia

        I’m afraid you’re the one who’s guilty of intellectual dishonesty.

        The overwhelming majority of homeless people are men. This is one of those facts that’s been true for so long and which voluminous research substantiates that I have to wonder about your intentions when you make such a baldly erroneous claim.

      • Stephen Diamond

        I don’t understand why picking bad men (and procreating with them before realizing it) is “bad luck.”

      • truth_machine

        I didn’t say anything about bad luck in my post, I was responding to a claim about ” really bad discipline, mainly with anger and drug problems”. Your response is a dishonest strawman and also is imbued with misogyny, or at least a complete lack of understanding and empathy for the situation of women.

        As for the other comment — I wasn’t intellectually dishonest, I was at most mistaken. OTOH, my statement that efalken’s statement is intellectually dishonest stands. Major causes of homelessness are lack of affordable housing, deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, poverty, and unemployment, and 62% of the homeless are minorities. Of course we all know how lacking in discipline those lazy folks are, eh?

      • Stephen Diamond

        Your incessant claims to have been misunderstood are the methods of a low-level intellect trying to make himself morally superior.

        [Choosing bad men doesn’t reflect anger and drug problems. (Unless you have special knowledge, which I doubt considering your howler about the homeless.) Obtuse refusal to see the point apparently gives you a cheap sense of ‘winning.’]

    • sleepmon

      Schizophrenia is one of the most heritable illnesses. The causal arrow still goes from luck => biology => personality.

      • IMASBA

        You either say that a person with strongly developed schizophrenia has low merit or that they are unlucky and that the term merit is meaningless, you have to choose one of those. Making some distinction that intelligence is merit but schizophrenia is bad luck doesn’t make any sense: intelligence is also acquired through genes and outside influences during childhood.

      • Stephen Diamond

        You’re taking a very simplistic view of how “luck” is attributed. As you do recognize, it isn’t a logical concept. Like most human concepts, it’s multidimensional (prototypical is the usual term). One large factor in whether someone calls a circumstance “lucky” is whether it has a single external cause. If schizophrenia were found to be caused by a single gene, educated popular consciousness would regard it as still more a matter of “luck.”

        Reiterating: “luck vs. merit” concerns psychological attributions rather than logical constructs.

        [Ultimately, it’s an empirical question whether people call coming down with a case of schizophrenia a matter of “luck.”]

  • Robert Koslover

    Surely the relationship also depends on the nature of the political system in which one lives. The connection between success and merit for a person living in a highly authoritarian society is, presumably, much weaker than for a person living in a relatively free society.

    • Stephen Diamond

      Interesting question. I don’t think the answer is obvious. My guess is that the relation between success and merit was stronger in Stalin’s Russia than in the West. It depends on who controls the authoritarian state. Under (what was called) socialism, less was left to chance. (Both the strengths and weaknesses of capitalism lie in how much it leaves to chance.)

      Or, to view the question through a different kind of example, do you suppose success has a closer relation to merit in school or in life? School is authoritarian, but I suspect it is meritocratic.

  • lump1

    I think that unmerited success/failure is much more galling and memorable than merited success/failure. We feel like we have a right to expect the latter, just as we feel we have a right to cops that don’t abuse their power. When the world fails to deliver what we think people are entitled to, we really notice. In the same way, lots of merited success/failure goes unnoticed, because the expected default is unremarkable.

    At least in the USA, even people with the “dark” view expect this default, perhaps they expect it even more vehemently than the rosy people. So I think pretty much everyone thinks that success tracks merit as a default. They just have different attitudes about cases that violate these expectations.

  • Friendly-HI

    When we evaluate the success and failure of people we need to keep in mind that quite certainly either outcome is very much determined by multi-causal processes. Whatever you personally choose to shove into the “merit” category are likely just enabling or sometimes even vitally necessary factors, but in most cases they are probably not at all sufficient on their own. It’s not just a case of attribution bias known from psychology but also a simple case of baseline neglect. The people who feature all the merit stuff but never made it due to factors out of their control simply rarely or never get caught in the tiny cone of your attention let alone interest.


    I agree with pretty much everything you’re saying in this post Robin, although I didn’t expect you to ever write something like it since previously you attributed billionaire status to mental superpowers.

    It’s probably like a game of poker: you need to play to ever have a chance of winning and if you are a good player you have an increased chance of winning but luck (meaning factors outside your control) is still terribly important, with greater variance than in poker because you only get to play a small number of “games” in your lifetime.

  • truth_machine

    The “rosy” view is a self-centered, intellectually dishonest, stupid and ignorant one that flies in the face of STATISTICS, a concept you don’t seem familiar with.

    • N

      Why are you so angry? Robin was not advocating the rosy view, but rather explaining why people would hold it.

      • Stephen Diamond

        Not only explaining but debunking! I think truth_machine missed the point.

        However, some of us might wonder why it took Robin so long to realize this, or why he thinks this analysis is novel.

      • RobinHanson

        I certainly suspect this isn’t novel, but it was easier to write this out than to search for someone else who said it. If you can point to a previous expression of the idea, please do.

      • Stephen Diamond

        Usually, one sees the basic idea as the starting point in discussions of counterexamples. For instance, :

        “In many contexts, the personal interests of individuals biases their beliefs or attitudes. Individuals adopt attitudes and beliefs, for example, that underscore the merits of their social roles or categories, usually to enhance their self esteem. Affluent individuals, for example, might ascribe their wealth to merit, which reinforces their competence.

        “Nevertheless, in some contexts, the attitudes and beliefs of individuals actually contradict their personal interests. In particular, individuals who correspond to the lowest echelons of a societal hierarchy often espouse attitudes and beliefs that undermine the interests of their stratum.

        “To illustrate, many individuals who are financially deprived nevertheless believe in meritocracies–the proposition that pay is related to merit (Jost, Pelham, Sheldon, & Sullivan, 2003).”

      • RobinHanson

        I agree that seems to have part of it. But that quote seems puzzled by unsuccessful saying merit & success go together, while I said we all want to signal such a belief to seem successful.

      • Peter David Jones

        Then why don’t all the unsuccessful hold to the merit theory? They don’t all want to signal success? The signal isn’t reliable?

      • Stephen Diamond

        The unsuccessful don’t all hold (or even espouse) the merit theory because they are concerned to signal that their status is unjust or at least not their fault.

        I think signaling theory would predict that what they signal depends on the salience of their failure. The very poor all say they were victims of bad luck. (But they not infrequently believe they’ll get rich, which suggests that they think it’s a meritocracy at the top.)

      • Stephen Diamond

        Fair enough. The article provides several explanations for why losers [good term, if you disabuse yourself of connotations] say winners are meritorious. But it misses the signaling explanation, which could be most important.

      • Peter David Jones

        Something that needs explaining is why the meritocratic theory is so widespread, when it is so poorly supported by the evidence. I suspect that that is because it is standardly trotted out by employers as an excuse not to give employees raises.

      • IMASBA

        The believe in meritocracy is a central pillar of Western culture. Every culture has some ideas that most people believe in to keep the culture going. Meritocracy is not entirely a myth btw, previous generations really did experience great laps in meritocracy compared to feudalism/guilded age.

      • truth_machine

        I didn’t miss any point and you seem to have no idea what it means, or takes, to debunk something.

      • Jason Young

        It is easy to forget true and useful facts when there are so many to remember. Don’t underestimate the value of being reminded of the obvious now and again.

      • truth_machine

        I didn’t say anything about Robin advocating the rosy view, now did I? Two views are offered, with unsupported claims as to who holds them, and with no mention at all of what view is consistent with the facts. The claim that “Successful people see a rosy view, that success and merit are strongly
        related. Unsuccessful people see a dark view, that success and merit are
        only weakly related” is utter BS. *Rational and informed* people see that success and merit are only weakly related, and that includes a lot of successful people. And a lot of Tea Party members who are living off of Social Security are certain that success and merit are strongly related, and will tell you at a drop of the hat that welfare recipients are undeserving. Of course their counterparts who are CEOs and raking in millions have the same view, also detached from reality.

  • Just

    Talking about biases without first talking about the corresponding reality is dangerous. It’s too easy to use speculation about motives to discredit someone else’s opinion. And without talking about reality first, you can’t make predictions about the way someone’s beliefs will interact with information they come across. Maybe one group is just right and the other is wrong, with neither being biased at all. I don’t think that’s true, but you’ve entertained the opposite extreme without justifying it at all.

    • RobinHanson

      You might be aware that debates on the reality here are pretty intractable. If we must settle those debates before discussion biases, we’d never get around to biases.

      • Unanimous

        I am aware of one set of experiments designed to shed light on luck and merit outcomes in free markets:


        a lot of luck it seems (and some merit). The same market with the same starting conditions run multiple times giving different outcomes each time.

      • Ken Arromdee

        Isn’t that equivalent to searching for your keys under the light because it’s easier to see there?

        If you need to figure out the facts in order to figure out the biases, and figuring out the facts is impossible, then that just means that figuring out the biases is impossible too. You can’t just start figuring out the biases anyway because it’s easier.

      • RobinHanson

        You can figure out if your car is not aligned and pulling to the left without knowing the absolute angle or position of your car in a cosmological coordinate system.

      • Ken Arromdee

        That is because knowing the coordinate system does not provide you with information that may affect your conclusion about whether the car is pulling to the left. Pulling to the left does not have that kind of relation to being in a particular coordinate system.

        Being biased *does* have that kind of relation to being correct.

    • Stephen Diamond

      “Dangerous” to those with the biases, no doubt.

      Psychological facts are as much part of “reality” as anything else. [And here there isn’t any actual fact of the matter, “licitness” being vague enough to manipulate almost freely.]

      [I will say that there’s one part of external reality so clear here that it really ought to figure in the argument: internationally, there just aren’t enough jobs to go around, with many countries having 30% or 40% unemployment rates. And the situation is only somewhat less controversial in the industrialized West. It simply cannot be the case that poverty exists because of demerit. Even if their character is a sufficient condition for their condition (which, at least among U.S. white people seems often the case), it surely isn’t a necessary condition. The (capitalist?) economy being what it is, there will be poor (unless a guaranteed annual income is practicable).]

  • Doug

    Seems to me that the discussion neglects the reverse causality. Yes success inspires the rosy view, but having the rosy view probably also contributes to long-term success. Much research confirms that “grit” substantially contribute to life outcomes. People who have the rosy view with regards to some pursuit most likely exhibit higher persistence in the face of failure.

    Those with a dark view are more likely to conceptualize failure in terms of unfair circumstances. Those with a rosy view have more incentive to invest in analyzing and correcting their failures.

    • RobinHanson

      I don’t see “gritty” and “has rosy view” as being very strongly related.

      • Doug

        (Discus ate my first (better) comment, feel free to delete if this ends up duplicating)

        “it was hypothesized that the belief in a just world would be associated with an internal locus of control- that is, the expectation that one can determine one’s own rewards and punishments, rather than being at the mercy of external forces (Rotter, 1966). The available correlational data provide strong support for this hypothesis. Rubin and Peplau (1973) reported a correlation of -.44 between Just World scores and scores on Rotter’s Locus of Control measure (on which high scores indicate an external locus of control). Six other studies have obtained correlations ranging from -.32 to -.58 (Zuckerman & Gerbasi, Note 12)…

        For 117 male undergraduates, scores on the scale were related positively to authoritarianism and to the expectancy for internal control of reinforcements. In a subsequent experiment Garrett (Note 11) found that high scorers on the Protestant Ethic Scale in fact worked harder on a tedious experimental task than low scorers did, In support of the hypothesis that people who espouse the Protestant Ethic also tend to believe in a just world, MacDonaId (1972) found that college students who scored high on the Protestant Ethic Scale were significantly more likely than low scorers to derogate social victims, agreeing for instance that “most people on welfare are lazy.” Lehrner (Note 7) administered both the Protestant Ethic Scale and the Just World Scale to his sample of undergraduates, and found that they were significantly correlated (r= .35)…

        [On the related subject of Just World belief being driven by life success] Within the UCLA sample there was no relationship between social class (as measured by father’s educational level) and scores on the Just World Scale (r= .03).”

      • RobinHanson

        OK, I stand corrected.

      • Stephen Diamond

        What catches my attention is that just world correlates with authoritarianism. (“For 117 male undergraduates, scores on the scale were related positively
        to authoritarianism and to the expectancy for internal control of reinforcements.”)

        The surrogate for “grit” is persisting on a boring task assigned by an (authoritative) experimenter. (Authoritarians will also persist longer in giving electric shocks to a stooge in a Milgram scenario.)

        Is it clear that internal locus of control steels you against failure? I doubt it’s unequivocal. Those who believe in a just world will take failure harder.

      • Stephen Diamond

        From the study: “For 117 male undergraduates, scores on the scale were related positively to authoritarianism and to the expectancy for internal control of reinforcements.”

        The confound with authoritarianism might be critical. The boring task was assigned by an authoritative experimenter.

        Just world has conflicting effects. It can also demoralize you in face of failure (anti-grit).

        [Discus ate my first attempt, too.]

  • Quixote

    Your impression may be driven by your social circles. Among liberals the “luck” view is pretty common even among the highly successful. People say, if I had died of a childhood illness I wouldn’t be a well paid lawyer programmer stockbroker engineer and its luck that I didn’t have a childhood illness so success comes from luck.

    • Stephen Diamond

      My guess would be that the luck view is particularly favored by the highly successful: countersignaling.

      • John_Maxwell_IV

        What are they trying to countersignal? Merit? I’m not sure if that makes sense.

  • charlie

    There is a possible equivocation on “successful” here that confuses things.
    To be in the extreme right tail of successful people– billionaires, nobel laureates, famous artists & performers–I think everyone agrees you need to have tons of skill (say, 99.9 percentile in the relevant dimension) plus tons of luck. After all, 99.9 just means best out of a thousand, and there are many thousands of people. So, the more narrowly you define “successful” the more luck will appear to predominate.
    However, if you refer to “successful” with respect to the whole distribution of the population, the overwhelming importance of merit becomes obvious. Income is highly correlated with IQ and conscientiousness, for example. Students who study more, certeris paribus, tend to better grades. Athletes who practice more, certeris paribus, tend to perform better. The modern rich are workaholics, rather than lazy.
    This suggests that holding a strong form of the dark view is a product of poor framing and/or self-delusion

    • Marshall_Priddy

      Absolutely. I’d really like to see the GINI coefficient on number of hours per week dedicated to work plus that for number of hours cumulatively dedicated to directly developing marketable skills.

      There’s a great deal of grumbling about the absurdity of the Horatio Alger “myth,” but his stories (as far as I can tell, having never read them) were not about becoming a billionaire that can live a life of lavish decadent consumption and never working. It was about becoming a respectable gentleman of middle class standing who has escaped poverty. That one cannot in a single generation launch easily, effortlessly, and reliably from poverty to opulence has been advanced as an argument against the simple accessibility of a comfortable life out of poverty and with reasonable security.

  • zarzuelazen

    “Darius Kazemi’s XOXO talk, in which he explains how he became a successful lottery player, is a brilliant send-up of the “how I succeeded as an artist” talk.”

    “Kazemi’s point is that most people who set out to earn a creative living fail, and that the thing that distinguishes the successes from the failures is a combination of luck (winning the lottery) and persistence (buying a lot of lottery tickets). This is a hugely important and vastly underappreciated point — you can try and try and try and never succeed, through no fault of your own (but the more you try, the more chances at success you have).”

  • Peter David Jones

    Does a version of this apply to Dalrymplism? Dalrymple thinks he has made made good choices, and his patients bad ones. But are any of them making free choices? Maybe they just follow the tracks laid down by their families and environments, and maybe he does too…the psychologists view rather than the economists.

    • IMASBA

      Absolute free will cannot exist: an information processing machine (which the human mind is) is always subject to its preexisting preferences, routines, its limited knowledge and outside influences. That does not mean you should not correct someone: after all, punishment, rewards and explanations change the outside influences and knowledge of a mind and can therefore change its future decisions and a prison sentence for a dangerous individual can protect the rest of society (just as you would cage a dangerous animal). People like Dalrymple are stuck in an old religious (specifically Christian, but Islam, Judaism and Hinduism have similar concepts) view of morality, but the idea that you should only correct people if you think you can attribute their decisions to some magical and inherent free will that is somehow independent from genes and experience (ie. the view that you’re “sick” when the gene or experience that made you different has been discovered already, but if it hasn’t been discovered yet you’re just “evil” because you “chose” to be different) is also a leftover from those old religious views.

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  • Marshall_Priddy

    You’ve got the causality backwards. Believing that you have no control and placing the locus of control over your life outside your personal means to affect change is what leads people to follow a path of least resistance. This leads to reduced advancement in life. Conversely, anyone who believes they can control their own fate is far more likely to actually make the sort of concerted efforts needed for sustained personal advancement.