Shallow Meritocracy

77 Pages Posted: 4 Sep 2021 Last revised: 1 Nov 2023

See all articles by Peter Andre

Peter Andre

Leibniz Institute for Financial Research SAFE; Goethe University Frankfurt

Date Written: October 26, 2023


Meritocracies aspire to reward hard work and 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 "shallow" and 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 regarding fair rewards. For others, the neglect results from the uncertain counterfactual. They understand that circumstances shape choices but do not correct for this because the 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 (October 26, 2023). SAFE Working Paper No. 405, Available at SSRN: or

Peter Andre (Contact Author)

Leibniz Institute for Financial Research SAFE ( email )

House of Finance
Theodor-W.-Adorno-Platz 3
Frankfurt am Main, 60323

Goethe University Frankfurt

Grüneburgplatz 1
Frankfurt am Main, 60323

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