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Why competence is a problem

competence meritocracy Jun 08, 2021

Intuitively, it makes sense that as the world gets more complex, we need competent people in positions of power. In fact, most of us believe that this is the world we live in, where talent and hard-work pay off. In the US and Canada, more than two-thirds of us think that this is how things are.

But it isn’t true. Meritocracy, the idea that success is the consequence of individual ability, doesn't actually exist. What’s worse, our belief in meritocracy has a negative affect on society. Here are some examples.

In this study, researchers found that belief in meritocracy led students from under-privileged backgrounds to reduce cognitive dissonance about their lack of opportunities for economic success by rationalizing it. While this makes sense, it may be self-sabotaging.

A belief in meritocracy increases selfishness. In this study using the famous Ultimatum game, when subjects were led to believe they had skill in a game, they consequently acted more selfishly.

Meritocracy -- or rather belief in it -- increases discrimination. In this study, and also in this one, priming with values about advancement according to merit led to increased gender bias.

Ironically, meritocracy itself was coined by a sociologist in 1958 in a satirical book warning of the dangers of the idea. Young was understandably perturbed that his dystopia was enthusiastically adopted as a model system.

So while competence itself is obviously important, how we act on our beliefs about it has implications for how we live. For neurotherapists, from the perspective of neurophysiology and epigenetics, behaviors that lead to personal success are understood as rooted in a context of influences, with questions about attachment history, different kinds of status, and healthy social relationships.

In my experience with clinicians in the EEGer community, the kind of critical thinking suggested by such questions is foundational. May this week shower you with epiphanies and healthy relationships.


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