Luck vs Merit (Part 2)


This weekend Robert Frank wrote about the respective roles of luck and skill in achieving success in this Economic View column in The New York Times. Frank’s piece hits on many of the same themes as my post from a couple of weeks ago on how the way we think about luck and merit affects how we see the world. That post, incidentally, has been cross-posted at the Creativity Post website, which is well worth checking out (thanks to Sam McNerney for helping to make that happen).

Here are the opening paragraphs:

There may be no topic that more reliably divides liberals and conservatives than the relationship between success and luck. Many conservatives celebrate market success as an almost inevitable consequence of talent and effort. Liberals, by contrast, like to remind us that even talented people who work hard sometimes fall on hard times through no fault of their own.

It’s easy to see why each side is wary of the other’s position. Conservatives, for example, understandably fret that encouraging people to view life as a lottery might encourage them just to sit back and hope for the best. Liberals, for their part, worry that encouraging people to claim an unrealistically large share of the credit for their own success might make them more reluctant to aid the less fortunate.

Frank goes on to describe a study that tests the role of luck and merit on the success of a music recording. In the study (PDF), sociologists Matthew Salganik, Peter Dodds, and Duncan Watts set up an online “market” in which people can download and rate a set of 48 relatively obscure indie songs (the downloads are free in exchange for providing a rating). In a control condition people simply listen to the music and rate it. This serves as an objective rating of the songs’ quality.

In other versions of the experiment, the researchers randomly made some songs appear to be more popular and have better ratings than others. The effect on subsequent ratings, as the study’s authors put it, was that “the best songs rarely did poorly, and the worst rarely did well, but any other result was possible.” Frank describes how one song, that had ranked 26th out of 48 in the control condition, was ranked as low as 40th in one version, but all the way up at #1 in another. Here’s his takeaway from the study:

Early success — even if unearned — breeds further success, and early failure breeds further failure. The upshot is that the fate of products in general — but especially of those in the intermediate-quality range — often entails an enormous element of luck.

In the end, both conservatives and liberals views were confirmed, at least in part: you have to be good to be successful but you also have to be lucky. With the hard work of these researchers, Bob Frank, and others (as well as a healthy dose of luck) maybe partisans on both sides will be willing to lay down their caricatured versions about what the other side supposedly believes causes success.