Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Winners and Losers




We have been talking about success and failure, why there are haves and  have-nots. I wrote a piece about billionaires where I summarized  the standard sociological explanation of success and failure: Individual success and failure are much more the result of advantage, luck and social circumstances than of individual  effort and aptitudes. This is the correct explanation, even though most people still reject it.

For over a century, the social sciences have been making progress in answering this question. But most lay people continue to reject what psychology, sociology, political science, economics and  the other social sciences have discovered. Lay people continue to be guided by beliefs based on their  own experiences, wrong as those beliefs are. It is as if we continued to believe that the earth is flat because it clearly appears to be so.


Social inequality is ubiquitous. Wherever we act and look - at work, at school, in sports, in music, in social relationships, in the way we live and the things we consume, some people are  “better” than others. Some people are leaders and others are followers. Some people give  orders and others obey. Wherever you are, there is hierarchy.

This is true at the macro-level and it is true within your family, at office parties, everywhere. Max Weber gave the best tripartite model of hierarchy.  It has three dimensions: (1) Class, (3) Status and (3) Power. Some people have (1) more money than others,  (2) enjoy more respect and (3) give the orders.

We accept hierarchy for one reason: Because by and large, we feel  that those who are above us are “better” than we are.  I say by and large. We  gripe a little bit about incompetent bureaucrats, politicians, professors, etc.  Many of us are fed up with middle-aged white men giving most of the order, etc.  But on the whole, we accept the social order, which says: People who are rich, famous and  in positions of authority are there because they are good  at what they do.  This is  how we feel about  physicians (particularly specialists), famous stars, PhD’s and other “experts,” university presidents, corporate executives, you name it.

I submit to you that this relationship should be reversed: Good performance is the consequence  of wealth, prestige and power  - in other words, of privilege.

An example from my own neck of the woods -  the academic marketplace - will serve as model  for  my thesis:

When people like me complete their PhD and begin to look for a professorship, there is a triage: Some of us - call it  group A -  end up at places like  Harvard and  Berkeley, whereas  others - group B -   land a job  at mediocre state universities or community colleges.

Ten years later, group A will have produced a significant amount of published research and climbed up the academic prestige and monetary ladder. Group B will not.

The conventional wisdom is that  group A was selected  out of grad school on the basis  of its more promising potential, i.e. its superior capabilities.

In truth, the only significant initial  difference between the two groups is this:

●    Group A landed academic positions  requiring very little teaching, with lavish assistance and research grants, whereas group B was burdened by a four-times larger teaching load, and with hardly any assistance or research support.

And many other differences/advantages  follow:

●    Great professional networks and connections available to group A, but not to group B.

●    On the job training: After ten years  of two such different trajectories, group A  of course  has “better”  research skills and  is  more up on the latest science  than group B.  For ten years, group A  has been conducting and publishing research, participating  in conferences and  networking with other experts. Meanwhile, group B has been teaching remedial English and algebra to high-school graduates. Its scientific skills and knowledge have atrophied.

●    Group A has developed the self-confidence, self-esteem and recognition (positive feedback) which contribute to better performance.

What you have here, as everywhere, is the self-fulfilling prophecy. Nothing succeeds like success. This example from my own experience applies everywhere. 

Of course there are exceptions. There are Horatio Alger stories. I’m just finishing Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath.  It’s  about  underdog success stories. I don’t want to rain on your parade if you have achieved a lot despite the odds.  I have, too.  But trust me: In general, failure begets  failure and success begets success.

So the question is: If injustice  - for that’s what I am talking about -  is the inherent natural order,  do we accept this and  submit to it? No, we do not: As human beings endowed with free will, we can choose to correct it. leave comment here

 © Tom Kando 2013