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.

Automatic brain, free person

I agree with much of what Michael Gazzaniga says here, and with the overall thrust of the project exemplified most recently in his book Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain.

However, as much as we might like to make this project entirely palatable, there is an important sense in which it does seem to challenge some stubborn intuitions, and I think we need to recognize the fact that such findings can and do influence our ideas about how and when to hold people responsible. The clearest evidence for this is found in the legal realm where, from the insanity defence to the twinky defence, we encounter a long history of attempts to grapple with the relation between the apparently mechanistic nature of the brain and our ability to hold people responsible for their actions–attempts which clearly show that a scientific-mechanistic understanding of the brain has important bearing on our understanding of freedom and agency.

Some support for Schumpeter

The last book I read was Joseph Schumpeter‘s Capitalism, Social, and Democracy, a book famous for coining the phrase “creative destruction” as a description of the process inherent to capitalism whereby old methods of production and commodities are incessantly obsolesced and replaced–an insight drawn, I believe, from Marx’s talk about capitalism constantly revolutionizing the means of production (compare also Deleuze and Guattari on on de/reterritorialization). Continue reading “Some support for Schumpeter”

Pascal vs. Callwood

If Callwood and Pascal had been pre-socratics, all would be either hate or love (respectively)

June Callwood: Hate is the underlying emotion of most men. In greater or lesser quantities, people hate all their lives.

Blaise Pascal: Who can doubt that we exist only to love? Disguise it, in fact, as we will, we love without intermission.

Continue reading “Pascal vs. Callwood”

Ray Kurzweil on the Future of GNR

Minority Report + Jaxon X + Skynet = bad news?

Ray Kurzweil, author of (among other books) The Age of Spiritual Machines, expounds on the promises and pitfalls of the coming expansion of GNR (genetics, nanotech, and robotics) technology, claiming that by 2029 scientists will have effectively modelled the human mind, producing artificial intelligence fully capable of passing a Turing test.

Continue reading “Ray Kurzweil on the Future of GNR”

As the web gets smarter, will our anonymity evaporate?

One of the most exciting things going on in webland today, I think, is the myriad of technologies, user experiences, and computer-to-computer interactions that typically pass under the monikers of “Web 3.0” or “the semantic web.” There isn’t a lot of general agreement on what precisely these terms mean (though I think the latter is more concrete), but what many people envision as the future of the web is an online environment in which data, text, and various forms of information and media are structured in ways that are machine-readable (if not machine-interpretable), leading to all sorts of new possibilities for interoperability between websites, new forms of user-agent interaction, and generally a web experience that is less characterized by “dumb” websites.

All of this, in addition to the manifest benefts, of course probably would present new opportunities for abuse, invasive marketing techniques, and threats to users’ privacy.

A glimpse of this last concern was provided recently by a paper from some Google researchers (“Could your social networks spill your secrets?”) that details how data from two different social networking sites (e.g. LinkedIn and Myspace) could be linked together to reveal the single person behind two different public profiles, despite the profiles being relatively anonymous and not directly linked. From the NewScientist article:

That approach is dubbed “merging social graphs” by the researchers. In fact, it has already been used to identify some users of the DVD rental site Netflix, from a supposedly anonymised dataset released by the company. The identities were revealed by combining the Netflix data with user activity on movie database site IMDb.

December 2009: As an addendum to this article, I direct your attention to “project gaydar”.

If it can’t be shared, it doesn’t count

Kevin Kelly on the future of the web, which he sees basically in terms of a movement towards the semantic web, or a web of linked data.

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Kelly unfortunatley comes across a bit naive, as he discusses our inevitable dependance upon, and surrendering to, the envisioned “web 10.0” without any critical hesitation or indication of cause for concern.