My artist colleagues and I have been trying to unravel the concepts of “deserving versus undeserving” in the politics of social inequality. The recent fiasco over how to “fairly” award 2020 ‘exam results’ has shone a harsh spotlight on this.
US Psychology Professor, Paul Piff’s research yields some compelling insights on this deserving/undeserving distinction from both his lab and real world experiments.
Pairs of experimental subjects were asked to compete against one other in a game of Monopoly but one of the pair was randomly allocated more money at the outset than their partner and allowed to add together two dice throws so they could move around the board faster and achieve higher returns.
Each playing pair quickly recognised the random discrepancy in starting advantage but, as the game progressed, the “rich” partners applauded their “own” successes at the expense of the poorer partner. They didn’t seem to bother that it wasn’t based on an even contest. After the game, the rich partners (the inevitable winners) talked about the tactics they employed to achieve their success and showed little awareness of the effect of their heavily rigged starting position.
In wider studies across the population, Piff has found that, as people become wealthier, their feelings of entitlement and deservedness increase along with an ideology of pursuing self interest even when that comes at the detriment of those around them.
Our governments are populated by people who are far wealthier than the average voter and happily accumulate more wealth (just like the Monopoly players) on the basis of the wealth they already have gained. Given the results of Piff’s experiments, the danger comes if these political leaders mentally attribute their success in life to what they have done or their own superior talent losing sight of all the random factors or societal “rigging” which were major contributing factors. They also may increasingly view self interest (even at the detriment of others) as morally acceptable.
Our current Conservative government is keen to promote a “levelling up agenda”. Meritocracy (on which the Tories are always keen) is defined as “an elite group of people whose progress is based on ability and talent rather than on class privilege or wealth“. But is it? How much of the progress made by our own government ministers was actually down to random events, timing and luck and social systems which were rigged in their favour? Do they really have so much more raw ability and talent? I wonder if they would spend 15 minutes watching Piff’s TED talk and reflecting on how deserving or undeserving their own wealth or career success has been. And would they be prepared to level down if that was a more effective route to creating a more equal society? And me… would I?