Shallow Meritocracy

74 Pages Posted: 4 Sep 2021 Last revised: 29 Sep 2022

See all articles by Peter Andre

Peter Andre

briq Institute on Behavior and Inequality

Date Written: September 28, 2022


Meritocracies aspire to reward hard work but promise not to judge individuals by the circumstances into which they were born. However, circumstances often shape the choice to work hard. I show that people's merit judgments are insensitive to this effect. They hold others responsible for their choices, even if these choices have been shaped by unequal circumstances. In an experiment, US participants judge how much money workers deserve for the effort they exert. Unequal circumstances disadvantage some workers and discourage them from working hard. Nonetheless, participants reward the effort of disadvantaged and advantaged workers identically, regardless of the circumstances under which choices are made. For some participants, this reflects their fundamental view on fair rewards. For others, the neglect results from the uncertain counterfactual. They understand that unequal circumstances shape choices but do not correct for this because the exact counterfactual—what would have happened under equal circumstances—remains uncertain.

Keywords: Meritocracy, fairness, responsibility, attitudes towards inequality, redistribution, social preferences, inference, uncertainty, counterfactual thinking.

JEL Classification: C91, D63, D91, H23.

Suggested Citation

Andre, Peter, Shallow Meritocracy (September 28, 2022). Available at SSRN: or

Peter Andre (Contact Author)

briq Institute on Behavior and Inequality ( email )

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