Is “success mostly results from luck and connections” a luxury belief?

I have been pondering this essay from Rob Henderson for a while, and will continue to do so: Luxury Beliefs are Status Symbols.

Much of it is well-argued and compelling. I need to consider it further before I can say how much I agree or disagree.

But one part is so poorly argued it merits mentioning. Henderson writes:

There are other examples of luxury beliefs as well, such as the downplaying of individual agency in shaping life outcomes.

A 2019 study led by Joseph Daniels at Marquette University was published in the journal of Applied Economics Letters.

They found that individuals with higher income or a higher social status were the most likely to say that success results from luck and connections rather than hard work, while low-income individuals were more likely to say success comes from hard work and individual effort.

Well, which belief is more likely to be true?

Plenty of research indicates that compared with an external locus of control, an internal locus of control is associated with better academic, economic, health, and relationship outcomes. Believing you are responsible for your life’s direction rather than external forces appears to be beneficial.

Here’s the late Stanford psychology professor Albert Bandura. His vast body of research showed that belief in personal agency, or what he described as “self-efficacy,” has powerful positive effects on life outcomes.

Undermining self-efficacy will have little effect on the rich and educated, but will have pronounced effects for the less fortunate.

According to Henderson this is evidence that this belief is a “luxury belief”.  I have a few problems with this section

1. The framing

Henderson asks “which belief is more likely to be true?” and then goes on to discuss the benefits of believing one vs the other, which patently has nothing to do with a belief being true. Was this just bad editing? This is such a non sequitur, I don’t know what to make of it.

There is plenty of research (though what I was able to find in a brief internet search generally seemed low quality) on whether hard work vs luck vs other factors are contributors to success. Henderson does not consider any of that here.

Additionally, there is a large body of research, as Henderson states, on the benefits of internal locus of control (e.g. The happy personality) and it does support the idea that internal locus of control is correlated with happiness and achievement. But it seems like a bit of a jump to go from “people emphasize the important of luck and connections in having success” to “people have weak/less internal locus of control and therefore are more likely to be unhappy and achieve less”, which is the conclusion that Henderson implies. The data used in the paper under discussion come from the World Values Survey, specifically the questions here are:

An answer of “in the long run, hard work usually brings a better life’ carries a value of one (1) in the survey and an answer of ‘hard work doesn’t generally bring success – it’s
more a matter of luck and connections’ carries a value
of ten (10).

To me this seems more about achieving societal markers of success (income, savings, housing, cars), while internal vs external locus of control is more about an individual believing they are responsible for and in control of what they do.

I am obviously not an expert on these terms, nor deeply familiar with the relevant theory and research, so I may be wrong here, but it seems like a big analytical leap that Henderson is making here. The relevance of this research to Henderson’s claim needs to be argued but he assumes it is obvious and uncontroversial.

2. The research

Reading the original research paper, we see the following correlations between belief in luck/connections (there are some others as well, but these are the ones that stand out as most problematic for Henderson’s case, in my opinion):

  • with social class: 0.0834
  • with gender: 0.0678
  • with country’s GDP: 0.0844
  • with income: 0.0077

Henderson seems to latch onto the correlation with social class, but this  leaves us with a few head scratchers, given his conclusions:

  • if this is a luxury belief, why is the correlation with income so much weaker than the correlation with social class?
  • why is there a correlation with GDP? are entire populations of wealthier countries more likely to adopt this view in order to distinguish themselves from other countries?
  • what’s with women? why are they so more drawn to this luxury belief than men?

It seems like Henderson had an idea, went around looking for evidence, found something resembling evidence if you squint right and ignore some things, and then just ran with it.

I understand that the piece of writing I’m discussing is not academic per se, but given that he frames it as a transcript of a talk he delivered at a “behavioural science festival” I found the lack of rigor in this part disappointing. It casts a shadow over the rest of the argument.

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