why math says there's no such thing as a true meritocracy | [ weird things ]

why math says there’s no such thing as a true meritocracy

According to pundits and politicians, we live in a world where talent and reward go hand in hand. But basic statistics says that’s simply not possible.
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For the last century or so we’ve been told that talent and ability are appropriately rewarded by society, that we live in a meritocracy where aptitude and skill define how well we do in life. It’s what we learn in school and what politicians, pundits, and motivational speakers blare at every opportunity. But there have always been some glaring problems with this notion, odd facts that never quite added up when we looked at the world with a critical eye and are defended with a wide array of blanket statements that casually write off vast groups of people.

Let’s consider the bell curve for just a minute. Every human, and every population would have to fall somewhere along it, with the vast majority in a middle 70% of skill and talent. If we were truly living in a meritocracy, we’d expect a fairly even distribution of men and women from all racial and ethnic groups achieving some notable form of success in their fields. There would be massively successful outliers from the top 20% of each group with outsize rewards, but there too, we’d have pretty decent representation from each slice of the demographic pie.

Instead, in the U.S,, the top one percent have as much wealth as the bottom 90%, nearly 9 in 10 of them are white, and more than 8 in 10 are male. With white men numbering less than a third of the total population, and white people overall representing just over 60% of all Americans, a true race and upbringing blind meritocracy should be far more diverse since statistically, the top quintile of the remaining 69% of Americans should be regularly making it to the top of the wealth and income heap. Obviously, there’s more going on than pure merit.

how to model success, skill, and luck

Okay, fine, those are all statistical inferences. Could we actually prove there’s something else that’s happening here? Turns out we can, thanks to a study by a team of Italian researchers who created a statistical model that replicated luck, wealth, and talent over a 40-year period. The model’s results and proscriptions from running its variations are certainly incomplete and don’t account for generational wealth, demographics, or history, but that wasn’t the goal. The goal was to figure out if a meritocracy is even possible in an otherwise perfect world with equal opportunity.

The simulation started with a group of agents, which are assumed to be in the same field, and allocates a certain amount of skill to them based on where they fall along the bell curve. As the virtual people proceed to spend the next four decades working away from their perspective, a different process ran in the background to generate lucky and unlucky events for agents who were in the right place and time. A lucky event doubled their wealth, more if they were in the top quintile of performers. An unlucky event could halve it.

In the end, the researchers tabulated the wealth distribution, which was designed to mimic what we see in the real world, and analyzed which agents became virtual equivalents of the wealthy in their experiment.  You probably won’t be shocked to learn that it was almost never those allocated additional talent, but regular individuals who just got lucky. Why? They were the vast majority of the agents to whom good and bad things happened, so those who had the most lucky breaks would come from the average population, mathematically speaking.

how to luck your way into fame and fortune

Now, this study has some obvious limitations and the fact that all of its agents start with the same amount of capital and opportunities is far removed from the real world. But it does a great job of capturing how important it is to have good luck to succeed. Born into an ethnic majority? Talented at something that’s in high demand? Got noticed by the right people and got that promotion over or alongside the boss’ kids? Received an inheritance? Your parents know influential people who can vouch for you or get you a job?

Every one of these lucky breaks is critical in achieving long term success and wealth, and we actually know this quite well. This is why the children of the well-to-do go to certain schools, are taught to network and make certain friends, and pushed into internships that could give them an edge in landing a lucrative job. Much of “upper class” upbringing is about creating as many opportunities as possible to encounter and capitalize on even the slightest bit of luck, to be there at the right time to seize an opportunity before someone else even knows it exists.


If we truly lived in a meritocracy and honestly believed in this idea, there would be no reason for high end boarding schools and upper-class clubs to exists. Talent, no matter where it came from, would dominate, so the emphasis would be on developing a skill in which a child has the highest aptitude as much as possible for guaranteed reward when they hit the top 20% on the bell curve. Instead, we have to contend with hiring biases, market trends, personal connections, and intergenerational wealth that puts a firm glass floor under the family’s progeny.

In other words, people who seem off-the-charts successful and to get every promotion or chance to shine aren’t that way just because they are skilled enough to excel in doing the actual work. It’s because they and their families have gone out of their way to make sure they had as many irons in the fire as possible, elevated their profile, and leveraged what resources they had to get a edge on a resume, to be one of the tallest trees in the forest when lightning struck. Only then could they put their talent to good use.

how can you break even in the casino of life

And this brings us back to the model. If we know that luck is the defining factor in wealth and success, what’s next? In a world populated by flesh and blood humans who are the results of more than 200,000 years of history, it would be pretty much impossible for a true meritocracy to exist. But it’s equally absurd to think that we can say that someone worth a billion dollars is somehow objectively a billon times more talented than someone in debt as if we can compare talents in an apples-to-apples way.

Based on the model’s recommendations, the best way to ensure that more people succeed is to simply give more people a chance in a field where they show aptitude and allow them to catch some of those lucky breaks they’re currently denied. Given the tiny differences in human genes and the fact that all of us fall along similar bell curves, odds are that a random person would do just as well as a random scion from a wealthy family in the same job. The fact that the wealthy often install their spawn rather than hiring lower or middle-class applicants in prominent posts tells you just how little faith they have in the idea of a meritocracy they espouse.

But perhaps most importantly, societal acceptance that getting even into the top 20%, much less the top 10% or the elite, is basically like winning enough hands in a casino, that some of us have more chips than others to get more chances to win, and that talent can only take you so far without some luck, would change quite a few policies around education, healthcare, and assistance programs. More importantly, it would force us to accept that no matter what some of us seem hell bent on believing, everyone deserves some real, fair shots at success.

why a useful myth will refuse to die

Again, it’s wildly unrealistic to think that we can ever give everyone the exact same starting point like we can in a simulation. Yet, by recognizing that even if we could, luck would still be the defining factor of success and talent could only help us get a few extra chances to move forward, we could focus on creating programs that provide equity to those with significant disadvantages, and accessible housing and healthcare for everyone to ensure a rudimentary degree of stability.

The outcomes will still be unequal, but at least we’ll know that we evened the playing field to make life a little fairer and a little more bearable for everyone. Sounds great, right? But the idea that for the vast majority of humanity, luck is the primary difference between rags and riches is abhorrent to some of today’s dominant political ideologies. In the mind of its adherents, there are natural hierarchies headed by people who are just naturally better than others, and if they were to ever make it to the top, well, that means they’re also superior specimens.

No matter how many studies we do and how much evidence we provide that no human is inherently better than any other and that talent is only as good as the ability to find and develop it, and the opportunity to capitalize on it, some people will just never accept these results. Their desire to feel special and important overrides their empathy, if they had any to begin with. But armed with more studies and models, we can at least counter the self-glorifying yarns they relentlessly spin in pop culture with concrete data.

See: Pluchino, A., Biondo, A.E., Rapisarda, A. (2018) Talent versus luck: the role of randomness in success and failure. ACS, DOI: 10.1142/S0219525918500145

# science // meritocracy / research / wealth

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