Worse Things ’Appen at Sea. Testing a Cognitive Dissonance Theory of Belief in Meritocracy

31 Pages Posted: 16 Jun 2022

See all articles by William Foley

William Foley

European University Institute

Date Written: June 10, 2022


People are more likely to view income inequality as legitimate when it is based on differences of merit. And in recent years, even as income inequality has increased in developed countries, so has the proportion of people who believe income is distributed meritocratically. But people have only imperfect information over the distribution of income in their society. Moreover, belief in meritocracy is higher in countries which are less socially mobile. This suggests belief in meritocracy is not a straightforward recognition of objective social processes, but may in fact be the result of some class of cognitive bias. In this paper I formulate an argument, based on the work of Jon Elster, that belief in meritocracy is a coping mechanism for reducing cognitive dissonance. To test this argument, I design and implement an experiment, where “Receivers” get offered a portion of a money prize by a “Proposer”, who may either have earned the money or been gifted it in a lottery. I predict that Receivers who get a very unequal offer and who do not have the choice to reject the offer, will convince themselves that (i) the Proposer earned the money; and (ii) the offer was fair. Results show that (i) is not the case, but (ii) is. Hence, belief in meritocracy does not appear to be a strategy for mitigating cognitive dissonace. Nonetheless, deprivation of control increases the probability that a disadvantaged person will judge an unequal distribution to be fair. To interpret this result, I analyse qualitative data given by the Receivers. My interpretation indicated that Receivers who got an unequal offer and lacked control adopted a fatalistic outlook, expressing the view that unequal offers were fair enough since humans cannot be expected to treat equally with each other.

Keywords: meritocracy, cognitive dissonance, social class, inequality

Suggested Citation

Foley, William, Worse Things ’Appen at Sea. Testing a Cognitive Dissonance Theory of Belief in Meritocracy (June 10, 2022). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4133697 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4133697

William Foley (Contact Author)

European University Institute ( email )

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