Humility, equality and luck

August 22, 2010

I’m reading The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. One of the passages that piqued my interest compares attitudes toward success and failure in Japan and the US.

According to data presented in the book, Japan is the most economically equal of the rich market democracies, with its richest 20 percent making just under four times the income of its poorest 20 percent. The US is the most unequal market democracy after Singapore. Its richest 20 percent makes more than eight times the income of its poorest 20 percent. (Both ratios sound too low, but I’ll take the authors at their word.)

Here’s how attitudes differ in the two countries:

In Japan, people choose a much more self-deprecating and self-critical way of presenting themselves, which contrasts sharply with the much more self-enhancing style in the USA. While Americans are more likely to attribute individual successes to their own abilities and their failures to external factors, the Japanese tend to do just the opposite. […] In Japan people tended to pass their successes off as if they were more a reflection of luck than of judgement, while suggesting their failures are probably attributable to their own lack of ability. This Japanese pattern was also found in Taiwan and China.

[… W]e would do well to see these patterns as differences in how far people value personal modesty, preferring to maintain social bonds by not using their successes to build themselves up as more able than others. As greater inequality increases status competition and social evaluative threat, egos have to be propped up by self-promoting and self-enhancing strategies. Modesty easily becomes a casualty of inequality: we become outwardly tougher and harder in the face of greater exposure to social evaluation anxieties, but inwardly […] probably more vulnerable, less able to take criticism, less good at personal relationships and less able to recognize our own faults. (44-45)

So how do we get there from here? Well, Mind Hacks recently pointed out an interesting study showing that gamblers took fewer risks with their money if they heard that a big winner had chalked up her winnings to luck than if they simply heard of her win. In other words, we need Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to admit that they got lucky in the game of life. While we’re at it, throw in Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerburg. Then maybe some of the more egregious biznobs will ratchet down their own self-evaluations, allowing the rest of us to breathe a little easier.

Step one: Do any of you know Bill Gates?

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