Friday, November 25, 2011


A meritocracy sounds like a great idea. After all, it supposedly lets the best people rise to the top, the ones that have the most merit. Unfortunately, it seems to rarely work that way.

Merit ideally comes from what people have actually done, their contributions in a specific area. But the visibility of merit comes from self-promotion. That is, if you do a lot of work, but nobody notices, then it is unlikely to be recognized.

As such, to get a lot of merit one has to make sure their peers are aware of their contributions. This naturally favors extroverted people, those that like interacting with others. Introverts on the other hand, are more likely to keep their heads down and just quietly contribute in the background.

In time, the personality bias would work itself out. That is, the strength of the contributions would over shadow the self-promotion. Well, except that there are many ways to ‘game the system’. The most obvious and most common is for extroverts to take credit for introvert’s merit. Since the introverts are quiet, and shy away from conflict, this is easily accomplished. Thus you get a lot of things like ‘visionaries’ that aren’t, since that is a very easy way for someone to steal credit from the people else.

Since the scorecard is really based on self-promotion, another way to game the system is to minimize the contributions, while maximizing the promotions. That is, you do something small, trivial and hastily, then just spin it into something big. We also see this all of the time. A deep investigation into many people with significant merit reveals that their claims are wildly disproportionate to what they actually did, and how successful it really was.

Of course, general human decency is believed to be why people don’t routinely game the system. However, if you look again at the personality types, not only are they extroverts but they are also staggeringly over-confident. And it’s this over-confidence that allows them to maximize their self-promotion and claim credit, even when it is detrimental to those around them. They simply justify it to themselves as deserved, so it is no longer such a bad act.

You’d think that underlying metrics can counter-balance this, but few meritocracies are actually based on real facts, and even then without concrete proof, real facts can be fabricated or spun. Thus it comes right back to self-promotion.

So it would seem that meritocracies are not generally based on contributions, but rather on the claims of contributions, and that it makes more sense if you want to get to the top to spend one’s effort on making claims, rather than the actual contributions. In time, more and more people figure this out, so that any meritocracy will eventually degenerate.


  1. What you're describing is not what I'd call a meritocracy. I think you're confusing "reward" with "merit," since those who promote themselves are the ones who are rewarded, therefor a meritocracy is based on claims of contributions, rather than actual contributions.

    I don't think there's any such thing as a pure meritocracy, especially on a wide scale. I think there are societies that can be described as "meritocratic" in the sense that they tend towards it, but it's not total. Taking it down to the level of an organization, a meritocracy must recognize actual accomplishments, meaning that it must be able to recognize them, and value contributors. If it can't recognize accomplishments and who did them, then I don't see how it can be a meritocracy. In other words, a meritocracy confers honors by testing not only the workability of the idea, but also who did the work of coming up with it. It doesn't just go on someone's word. Saying that good ideas must be promoted to be recognized is not a good excuse, IMO, because what you're saying is whoever can put on the best show is the one who gets the reward. Never mind if they actually came up with the idea they're promoting.

  2. I agree. And I've come to realize that recognizing actual accomplishments is a nearly impossible task. There are always ways to cheat the system, and depending on the rewards, there is often more incentive to cheat then to compete fairly. Thus we get drug use in sports, spin in politics, and lesser musicians in pop music.

    I wrote this particular rant because I've seen a bunch of justifications recently about how different organizations were founded on meritocracy, and how that was such a good thing. But even if you start close to one, the system will degenerate into something else, and I suspect that the more it's compromised the less likely it is to ever go back towards a meritocracy.

    To me, the people most likely to declare something a meritocracy, are the ones most vested in preserving the corruptions.

    Perhaps I'm just being overly cynical these days?


  3. With the exception of drug use in sports, it sounds like what you're describing is a decline in the ability of people to recognize quality, to even care about it.

    The drug issue is difficult to deal with because there's a fine line between what goes into training and performance enhancement, and performance enhancement is rife with stuff that can't be detected with tests. Unfortunately now that there's money and prestige at stake, athletics is not just about training, as much as it tries to hold to that. It's about strategy as well, and that's where the line gets blurred.

    Again, I go back to recognition. Spin in politics, for example, can be recognized and filtered out if the people observing it care about politics, and the importance of evidence in it. If people just listen to what someone says, are only paying attention to what is blatantly obvious, are not going in-depth, and have a strong preference for their own ideology, then they'll just buy the spin if it agrees with their preconceived notions. Even if you try to argue against it with in-depth information, such people will still prefer their preconceived notions over something more substantive. This represents a loss in the ability of a public to exercise politics in a sophisticated manner. It begs for an administrative state to carry out politics in place of the public, while giving the appearance that the public is in control. This is not healthy for a democracy!

  4. Re. pop music

    Well most of it has not been of high quality by its nature. It appeals more to psychology than to sophistication of artistry, in actually communicating in a way that means something. It's very difficult to make that a meritocracy, particularly when art education is seen more as "creative play time" in society, with no background, and no sophistication in outlook and technique. The success of an artist is part skill, but it's also a lot of luck, because whether people like it enough to buy it so subjective. Our society doesn't have a way to measure what makes good art. It's all in the eye of the beholder. The way high quality music and art used to be promoted was via. a patronage system (I'm talking about the Renaissance period, etc.) The elite of society would commission art, and they had a cultural sophistication they could apply to it. So they could filter out the good and great from the mediocre. Though who got picked was still somewhat subjective. Religion and politics was a factor.

    What I was more thinking of was in terms of a product on the market that people use. If it does something useful, and the business model and manufacturing process allows it to be affordable for enough buyers to attract a retailer, and the marketing is competent, then its success will be borne out in the marketplace. Meritocracy needs a criteria, though. It doesn't necessarily mean the best of everything. It implies that some need is satisfied, but people can disagree about merit. For example, a manufacturer can create a product that a lot of people buy and like, but others can disagree with its labor practices and the way it treats the environment. So some can say it deserves its success from a standpoint of product utility, but others can say it's a bad company to work for. So depending on what you're looking for, its merit can be both good and bad!

  5. Products in a marketplace are subject to the influence of marketing. A good marketing campaign can change the perception of merit (if the product is usable).

    Do you know of any examples of meritocracies that actually exist and actually work correctly? The US is often called one, but it seems only lightly so. Academia is also sometimes listed as one, but from my experiences self-promotional skills are the underlying merit in most cases. What else?


  6. The best guess I can give you is the military. They still hold merit as important, and they give medals, and promote officers based on it. The Boy Scouts used to recognize merit. I have no idea if they do anymore. There may be other examples in society, but my knowledge of organizations is not broad enough to say.

    I can say that from my experience in public school, over 20 years ago now, that the grading system was based on merit. The same goes for my experience going through college. The criteria for merit wasn't the best, but it was fairly good. I can't say that about public schools today--primary, secondary, and undergraduate education. Grades are generally not seen as markers of merit anymore, but rather as "good" or "bad" messages to children. This even goes for most of the Ivy League universities, which now routinely grade students on a curve. The average grade at Harvard now is an "A," and it's not because most of the students got smarter all of a sudden. Faculty don't like the idea of a few kids getting the advantages that conferred honors give them, while other students have to "suffer" because they got lower grades. So they give honors to as many students as they can, to give them "self-esteem" and that "advantage" they need. Other institutions complain about this, because they can't count on the markers of merit meaning anything anymore. Employers in particular have started to give school grades less credence, and try to use other factors in selecting candidates.