Fairness is an important value among many of us. That’s why we want to make sure sports competitions are free of unfair advantages (like steroid use), students can’t plagiarize when writing papers, and businesses are honest in their dealings. We want people to deserve their successes.

A group of candidates sitting in line waiting for a job interview

Yet when it comes to hiring or admitting a student to college, we often base our decisions solely on people’s observed performance or talents—in other words, their “merit”—rather than how they were able to achieve them. We might overlook the fact that one candidate had an unfair advantage over another for some reason.

Should that matter? A new study suggests it should—and finds that both conservatives and liberals endorse this view.

Is meritocracy fair?

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In the study, researcher Daniela Goya-Tocchetto of the University of Buffalo and her colleagues surveyed thousands of Americans who identified as either liberal, independent, or conservative politically, to see how learning about disadvantages might affect their view of merit-based decision making.

First, participants were introduced to two people vying for a job or promotion—Jim and Tom—and told how a merit-based decision would be made. For example, they might read that the hiring committee was focused only on getting the most qualified candidate for the job and that Jim is the clear choice, because he has better grades and a lot of extracurricular activities and internships.

Some participants received no other information about Jim or Tom, while others read information about their backgrounds—such as the fact that Jim grew up in a family with lots of money who could afford sending him to the best schools, while Tom grew up in a family who didn’t have enough money for that.

Afterward, everyone was asked how fair the merit-based selection process was and how fair the outcome was. The researchers also checked to see if people’s political orientation affected their answers.

In all cases, when given background information, people rated the selection process and outcome as less fair. Although conservatives tended to see merit-based systems as fairer than liberals, in general, they were still likely to change their position when hearing that Jim had advantages Tom didn’t have.

This was somewhat surprising to Goya-Tocchetto.

“In the United States, where there is a strong culture of meritocracy, people have a strong belief that meritocratic processes are fair; so this result surprised me,” she said. “But I found it particularly surprising that the information affected people across the political spectrum.”

Most employers wouldn’t necessarily get this kind of background information for everyday hiring and promotion decisions, though. So, Goya-Tocchetto and her colleagues wanted to see if more general information about the effects of economic disparities on opportunity would change people’s views.

In another set of surveys, people either read general information about how income affects our opportunities in life (instead of information about Jim and Tom) or didn’t. For example, they read that people with more money have certain advantages, such as having more time to study and participate in unpaid extracurricular activities in college that could help them get a job when they graduate.

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In this part of the study, the researchers also checked whether this information affected people’s support for practices that might even the playing field—such as “using hiring processes that remove prestigious brand-name universities from resumes” or “making internships less of a requirement for getting hired.”

After hearing about merit-based hiring and who received the position, people who’d read about the effects of income disparity on opportunity felt merit-based processes were less fair. And they were more supportive of equity initiatives, too—whether they were conservative or liberal.

This was even more surprising to Goya-Tocchetto—and encouraging.

“To tell a general story about how previous advantages and disadvantages shape markers of merit and have that update people’s perceptions means people are understanding that what they previously assumed were markers of merit aren’t necessarily that,” she says.

Building fairer systems

Does this mean that people might support other measures aimed at being fairer—like affirmative action programs? Goya-Tocchetto isn’t so sure. Her study focused only on economic disadvantages, not other potential barriers to opportunity like those based on race, gender, or ethnicity.

“When it comes to acknowledging racial or gender disadvantages, political conservatives tend to be less likely to acknowledge those. But they are more attuned to disadvantages within the economic domain, and I think our evidence supports that,” she says.

On the other hand, Goya-Tocchetto argues, letting go of meritocracy beliefs can be a hard sell, because selecting people on merit is both easy and intuitive. Organizations need good workers—people with certain skills and abilities—so considering someone’s experience with those seems like a reasonable approach. Using strategies to look more closely at an individual’s background would take more time and effort, something most organizations may not want to do.

Also, merit-based systems themselves were created to improve on prior systems of advancement, like nepotism. So, people tend to think that looking at an individual’s accomplishments or merit, without regard to their background, is relatively fair. This makes it harder for them to consider giving up meritocracy beliefs in favor of something more nuanced.

“Meritocracy can be an appealing ideology,” says Goya-Tocchetto. “Once something becomes the status quo and gives us a simple answer—and we don’t have something simple to replace it—we just get stuck on that.”

Still, she hopes that her research sheds light on something that might surprise people: public support for more fairness in these processes (despite presumed political differences). And, she says, it may point to some specific tips for overcoming the problems with current merit-based systems.

For example, she says, candidates applying for jobs or college admission may want to be more forthcoming about the reasons why they couldn’t pad their resumes with unpaid internships or attend elite schools. And those in a position to make selection decisions may want to be careful about favoring candidates from elite schools with prestigious internships on their resumes. They may want to consider how hard someone had to work or how much they had to overcome in order to get where they’re at.

Perhaps if we can better appreciate how people value fairness and what it takes to make our hiring decisions fairer, we can come together and create a more equitable way of doing things.

“Meritocracy can make a lot of sense when we look at a snapshot of reality, but as soon as you expand the lens through which you’re looking at the world, the merit process becomes so biased,” she says. “Once we talk about and acknowledge that, maybe we can shape people’s views about what ‘equal opportunity’ really means.”

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