Behavioral economist on why Americans freak out when you attribute their success to luck

Cornell economist Robert Frank drew the ire of the nation's business press when he published an article that said something most economists would agree with: hard work and skill aren't enough (or even necessary) to succeed; but luck is. Rather than back down from the angry reception, he's expanded the article into a book, Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy, which came out last month.

Frank's argument: being born to a rich, privileged family is sometimes sufficient to guarantee success, even for people who aren't very good at their jobs and don't work very hard; meanwhile, being born into a family that lacks wealth and privilege can sometimes prevent people from rising in society, even if they are very good and work very hard.

Like any good economist, Frank backs up his argument with studies and statistics; and like any good behavioral economist, he investigates why this obvious fact is so hard for so many Americans to accept, and offers some strategies for overcoming that resistance.

3. Encouraging “active processing” might be one way to help avoid such freaking out, especially among rich people.

One of Frank’s broad goals is to figure out how to get wealthy, fortunate people in particular to understand that good fortune is part of why they are where they are — in his view, that might help spur the sorts of more egalitarian policies many of them have traditionally, and vociferously, opposed.

He pointed out that, in his experience, telling rich people they’re lucky tends to be a surefire way to evoke defensiveness (Fox Business’s Varney is a pretty compelling example). If, on the other hand, you ask them to come up with times when they were lucky, Frank believes it often gets them thinking about their own life and the path they took to get where they are. Everyone who is successful can point to some way in which they were lucky — they will always have some kind of answer, and it might spur them to think about the concept in a new, helpful way.

Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy [Robert Frank/Princeton University Press]

Why Americans Ignore the Role of Luck in Everything
[Jesse Singal/Science of Us]

(via Skepchick)

(Image: Nathaniel De Lorentis, Rich Kids of Instagram)