Failures in Meritocracy: Why Good People and Ideas Go Unused

Will Hunting from Good Will Hunting was a genius who fell through the cracks and was a janitor.

Why don’t good ideas win? Why don’t talented people get ahead? This is not about the relative fairness or lack thereof of the system toward people with disabilities or ethnic minorities. That is a major issue but that argument is problematic because it would posit a hierarchy based on intellect or talent rather than any superficial characteristic which is not an argument I am willing to make. I’m not going to propose intellectual classism as a way to stratify a society. Rather, this is about the psychological and sociological reasons why good ideas and people who would make the systems better and more efficient get passed over. The problem is not that marginalized populations should be represented just because that’s fair but because therein lies an unrealized talent pool that could rectify a myriad of problems that the current limited pool has failed to.

                The foremost problem is the aversion to change. In the psychology of institutions there is a phenomenon known as the institutional immune system which suppresses new ideas and favors old ones out of fear. Specifically because of a cognitive bias that means passive failure feels less dangerous than active failure. Negligence can easily be as dangerous as active harm but it feels less dangerous. In other words, doing nothing always feels safer than taking risks even when, statistically and scientifically, doing nothing may be much worse and riskier than many of the other options. New ideas or people from less conventional backgrounds may be better choices and they may have the evidence to prove it but the gut of people in power almost always sides with the irrational caution that tells them boldness is dangerous even when scientifically and statistically that particular bold option is known to be advantageous.

                An example of that comes from my college where they have a huge student homelessness problem. Now, they did almost nothing about it and their panic over it was disproportionately subdued. That’s because the student homelessness crisis arose gradually from the rising housing prices in the Charleston area. If, rather, these students had been in dorms and been made homeless due to sudden natural or artificial disaster then the college bureaucracy would have taken the crisis far more seriously and if that disaster were the fault of the college bureaucracy then there would have been far more of a concerted response. The reason they don’t feel urgency is because of the gradualism and negligence to blame for the crisis. Likewise, global warming is more dangerous than Nazis but it isn’t being treated like Hitler so no one is making a warlike effort against it.

                The next reason is vanity. The reason a big tech company wants to pull from Ivy League schools or pull high GPA students has as much to do with their wish to brag about how many honors students and Ivy Leaguers they have on staff. It’s not because the average graduate of UCLA is smarter or more talented than the average UC Davis graduate. They’re not. The fact is, negating substance abuse and similar factors, a low GPA student and a medium-level school is likely just as qualified for a position as a high GPA student at a upper-tier school. GPAs measure stress, financial status, medical history, and other things. That is not to say that hard work and smarts have nothing to do with a GPA but that they have a lot less to do with it than they’re given credit for. At a college with over 700 homeless students, one can’t expect that GPAs reflect ability and aptitude more than financial security. Furthermore, study skills and supplemental instruction are taught so people will be successful in school but they basically teach the homework and test. Being an honors student at my college often means they’re a rich kid with their bottom Maslow’s Needs satisfied and tutors who baby them through homework. High GPA students are empty trophies arbitrarily chosen through fate that the college gifts to employers, not people with high aptitudes.

                Not only does that result in good people being passed over but since the selection process is more arbitrary than accurate, it sends bad people into those positions. My college’s system is so divorced from sending qualified people into jobs as opposed to unqualified people that it is almost useless to look at their GPA. It will tell you more about their housing and nutrition than their qualifications so those with high GPAs have a lower percentage of qualified people and that is bad for employers’ HR selection process. This is actually slightly worse now than earlier because the academic industry used not to be a thing. People who went to college had cheap food, cheap housing, and didn’t get babied through their assignments so grades were more, albeit not perfectly, representative of actual ability. Nowadays, tutoring and Adderall and lots of other things have become the metaphorical steroids of a competition ever less connected to reality.  

                Obviously, we don’t live in a society where the best ideas and best people win and that’s a huge problem because we have a lot of problems and we need the right people and right ideas to address them. This is especially important in my fields because while there is an emphasis on STEM, liberal democracy is crumbling and there is a mental health pandemic. Psychology and the social sciences are more important than ever and I am afraid that democracy may be the most tragic victim of the lack of meritocracy in our institutions. STEM, being based on physical science, is slightly easier to get ahead in without formal qualifications. If you can build a robot or use CRISPR then you can prove yourself but in the softer sciences formal qualifications are more important. That’s really bad because if we lose democracy, everything else goes with it. Therefore, this is a problem that dearly needs solving.

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