Shirkers versus strivers: luck, fairness and cognitive errors

By now, we’ve all noticed the proliferation of powerful political rhetoric drawing clear distinctions between society’s ‘strivers’ and its ‘shirkers’. Decent, hard-working, struggling people who want to get ahead and provide for their families are contrasted with those lazy, idle, feckless benefits-scroungers who sit at home all day with the curtains drawn, watching plasma televisions paid for by decent, honest taxpayers. These kinds of tensions between the poor and the middle-classes aren’t new, of course. But in recent weeks and months there has been an upsurge in the appeal by politicians to these familiar depictions of strivers and shirkers. And hence, rather unsurprisingly, recent evidence suggests that a large proportion of people grossly overestimate the percentage of the social security budget that is spent on unemployed people or fraudulent claims, and that a large proportion of people support the implementation of caps on benefits for working-age people.

The official justifications for the proposed annual 1% cap on benefits being voted on on Tuesday in the welfare uprating bill are related to deficit-reduction and the value of fairness – the need to distribute the costs of essential deficit-reduction measures fairly. We could dismiss this as mere posturing, disingenuous gesturing towards important moral values like fairness or social justice, when in reality they can be explained by far more cynical motives – the standard version of this response suggests the explanations are part ideological, in the form of a neo-liberal drive to roll back the activities of the state, and part pure self-interest, out of the need to appease wealthy donors, or the desire of Conservative politicians to preserve their own privilege and fortune. This uncharitable interpretation might be the correct one, though of course we will never know for sure, the precise nature of people’s intentions and the contents of their characters being difficult to do more than speculate about. I find it a rather implausible hypothesis, given that it has to attribute to Cameron, Osborne et al both brazen, barely concealed pursuit of self-interest, as well as a complete lack of concern and compassion for the suffering of those who are badly off. Much as I dislike many of the coalition’s spending cuts, I find this explanation of how they have been arrived at rather unbelievable. Few people are so wicked as this story requires senior members of the government to be. But anyway, even if it were true, this still leaves us with the question of why many ordinary people – many of those who will be hit hardest by the benefit cuts being proposed – continue to support them. This is not a new phenomenon either: political scientists, as well as commentators on the left, have long pondered the mystery of why so many voters support political parties or policies that do not promote their interests, and indeed seem to serve the interests of those who are already pretty affluent.

I have a theory about why this is. I think the same theory that explains why David Cameron and George Osborne believe that placing caps on benefits is the fair thing to do, is the same theory that explains why many people believe that increases in, for example, inheritance tax are unfair, even though those taxes are redistributive in purpose – that is, they aim to redistribute wealth from those who have more, towards those who have less. I want to stress that this is just a theory, one that I have been pondering for a while. It is essentially a psychological theory, and although I am reasonably well educated, I’m certainly not a psychologist. So a lot of this is speculative, and tentative. But nonetheless, I’m putting it out there.

I think Cameron and Osborne are probably being honest when they say that they believe it is unfair that some people receive as much in benefits as others earn from paid employment, in the same way many people think that high rates of income tax for large earners, or large rates of inheritance tax are unfair, even though they pay neither of these high rates themselves. I think this can be explained by reference to a near universal cognitive bias that we are all susceptible to, and yet is ultimately an error, that leads us to make serious errors in our judgement of ourselves and others.

First of all, many people (perhaps most people) share the intuition that at least part of what fairness is about is making sure that nobody is made worse off as a result of things for which they are not responsible, because they were things over which they had no control. This might not be the whole story of what it means to treat people fairly, but most people have some intuitive thought along these lines – it is unfair if people suffer when it is not their fault that they suffer. This is why we think anti-discrimination laws are generally a good thing: it would be unfair if I suffered as a result of my race or gender, when these are things I could not control, and am not responsible for. Following on from this, we would probably also think that it is unfair for people to receive rewards or benefits for things they weren’t responsible for. So many people would share the view that a fair distribution of resources is one where people acquire a share that in some way tracks their responsibility; where people are rewarded or punished for their efforts and for the things they could control, and not rewarded or punished for the things that were outside of their control.

Whether or not this is the correct way of understanding fairness, it is at the next step where the errors of reasoning arise. My belief is that the vast majority of us, perhaps even all of us, are susceptible to a cognitive bias whereby we drastically overestimate the extent to which we are responsible for where we end up and the things that happen to us. That is, we seem to be predisposed to significantly overestimate just how much our achievements and our outcomes are truly down to our own efforts and hard work, and therefore are things we are responsible for; while at the same time we significantly underestimate the extent to which these things came about through factors that were ultimately beyond our control – that is, through brute luck. I don’t know why we tend to make this mistake. Perhaps evolutionary psychologists could give some reasonable explanation for why we all seem prone to this bias. Perhaps, for the same reasons it was evolutionarily advantageous to see patterns and faces where these don’t exist, it was also advantageous to develop the belief that we have control over our lives and our environments; that we are purposive agents who can effect real change in the world, rather than being buffeted by fate, chance and random forces of nature. Whatever the explanatory story, the consequence is that nearly all of us have a tendency to believe that the primary factor explaining how we have come to achieve and obtain the things we have is through our own efforts and resourcefulness, rather than recognising that to a large extent, we got where we are – good or bad – predominantly through brute luck.

None of this should be understood as a denial of free will or the possibility of agency. It is simply to say that of all the factors that could explain how I got to where I am now, luck is overwhelmingly the most important one. I was born to a particular set of parents, in a particular geographic location, and with a particular set of natural talents, none of which I am in any way responsible for. Sure, I had to work hard to develop these talents in certain ways; but it should hopefully be obvious that hard work alone cannot explain successes, as without a great deal of good fortune my hard work would have amounted to nothing. We can’t hope to untangle what proportion of my outcome can be attributed to my hard work and what proportion came down to good fortune, since luck is closely intertwined with effort at all stages (and of course, having the propensity and ambition required to work hard may be a natural endowment for which we aren’t responsible either).

But because of the cognitive error, whereby we attribute far too much weight to our efforts while disregarding the far more significant role played by brute luck, we fail to recognise this. Particularly if we have been successful, we attribute this to our extraordinary hard work, resourcefulness and chutzpah. And indeed, we are likely to take exception to the suggestion that it is mostly good luck that got us here. Furthermore, we do the same thing with other people. If I have been successful and acquired a lot through my hard work and resourcefulness, then those who are unsuccessful or have failed to acquire a lot must have been lazy and unresourceful. If I am responsible for my achievements, then others must be responsible for their relative lack of achievements. And if fairness is about rewarding people for the things they are responsible for, then it is only fair that those who have worked harder should end up richer than those who are lazy.

I think this is something like the story that explains why people like Cameron and Osborne believe cuts to social security are essentially fair, and what explains the perennial appeal of the shirkers versus strivers story – it seems to us, cognitively biased as we are, plausible to think that those who claim benefits must not be trying hard enough, and therefore are undeserving of a greater share of resources. What’s especially interesting about all this is that it is not only those who have been more successful who tend to believe the story. The poor, as well as those described by Ed Miliband as the ‘squeezed middle’, often seem to endorse this explanation too. This helps to explain why even those in the lower socio-economic classes often report being against high levels of income and inheritance tax, even though they would stand to be beneficiaries. (A piece of anecdata – whenever I ask my undergraduate students whether we ought to tax Premier League footballers more highly, they overwhelmingly object that this would be unfair, as footballers work so hard to get to that level and therefore deserve whatever the market is prepared to pay for their talents. I suspect this answer would be given by many people asked the same question.)

A further consequence of this error of judgement is that many people are unwilling to accept the idea that they might end up contributing more to the collective pot of resources than they take out. It is rare to encounter people who would think it fair if, over the course of their lives, they end up being net contributors, rather than net beneficiaries, of social welfare. Generally speaking, there is a widely shared assumption that fairness requires that what we all get back from the state is roughly equivalent to what we put in; and so if throughout the course of my life l consistently pay high levels of income tax, while making little use of social security and publicly funded services, then this regarded as somehow unfair. The political implications of all this is that it is very difficult for politicians of any stripe to gain popular support for redistributive programmes, and relatively easy to obtain support for policies such as caps on benefits payments.

If I am right about all this, then our mistaken belief in the extent to which we and others are responsible for our destinies is a serious barrier to realising social justice. Misguided ideas about what fairness requires, grounded in the illusion that we all have far more control over our achievements and outcomes than we actually do, stand in the way. So what can we do about it? We can start by recognising the extent to which our own situation was influenced by factors for which we are not responsible, and is therefore to a large extent a matter of luck. Those of us who are in a position to pay high levels of income tax, who do not claim social security, who perhaps have enough money to use private healthcare and send our children to private schools, ought to recognise that none of this is unfair. Rather, we should realise that these facts about us are themselves evidence of how much good luck we have had – how circumstances beyond our control, that we are not responsible for, have contrived to provide us with a higher level of income than many other people can hope to achieve. In other words, paying high levels of income tax and not claiming benefits is itself evidence that you have been fortunate, when others have been less so. And that being the case, the reasonable response is to pay higher levels tax gladly, and to vote for parties that propose tax increases to fund welfare benefits and public services, even if these are things that, because of our good fortune, we don’t currently use ourselves. Those of us who have had good luck in life’s lottery should therefore acknowledge that there is no unfairness if we end up paying more in to social welfare than we take out. But ultimately, the onus lies on politicians on the left to challenge the dominant view, rather than merely appeasing it. We need to educate citizens about the strength and pervasiveness of the cognitive bias towards the illusion of control and responsibility, and encourage people to question their intuitively plausible yet false belief that we are all essentially responsible for our outcomes and achievements. Once we recognise that the primary factor explaining where people end up is brute luck, we are far less likely to think that it is fair to cut benefits to the poorest in society, or to preserve the wealth of the richest, as neither are really responsible for what they have.

4 thoughts on “Shirkers versus strivers: luck, fairness and cognitive errors

  1. Some really interesting thoughts there Becca, and I agree with a lot of what you’ve written. I have a worry however, that the analysis is so broad that it might be true for many, or most, but underplay the role played by merit in others. Because, as you say, the situation is so complex that it’s almost, if not completely, impossible to unpick, there isn’t much scope for having an informed, evidence-based argument – what can you say to the person who has a different intuition about the role played by hard work? Another concern that I have (writing from my experience of the estate that I live on and my time representing some very deprived people), is that there a subset of people who explain or justify their lack of hard work, or even their criminality by reference to brute luck and external factors (such as immigrants or politicians) – they use that to deny their own agency or responsibility when all around them can see that the primary reason for the state of affairs their find themselves in is their own action and inaction. In other words, there’s another side to the coin you describe, and I suspect that the people I describe have such a big influence on those around them that people take away the impression that the numbers of these people are greater than the reality. It may be that the over-estimations you link to, and the false impressions you describe are not just down to people underestimating the role of brute luck in their own circumstances, but also because of the disproportionate effect on their neighbours that those who deny responsibility for their lives can have.


  2. I’m not a psychologist either, though I seem to recall that most of us take too much personal credit for good things that happen to us and too little responsibility for bad things (which we attribute to bad luck or circumstance). I’m not sure how this relates to our estimates of others though. Perhaps we over-estimate how much responsibility others bear for their own bad fortune or perhaps we under-estimate it. I suppose it may depend on our degree of empathy.


  3. Being based in the U.K., the author omits one vital point that is far more salient in the USA, which is race. Those who condemn the poor as lazy layabouts who only want to pick up their welfare and unemployment checks make the clear, and not always unspoken, point that those “welfare cheats” are black [and, nowadays, also Hispanic]. Cutting off or reducing such benefits is a not-so-subtle way of affirming ones status as White, even if dirt-poor, ignorant White. When, as long ago as 1980, Ronald Reagan denounced “welfare queens who drive to pick up their welfare checks in their Cadillacs,” everyone knew what and who he was talking about. That poor whites, who need all the help they can get, consciously try to reduce or end such programs has less to do with psychology in general and more to do with racism in particular. Is it cutting off one’s white nose to spite another’s black face? You bet. This syndrome, however, goes far beyond questions of social welfare; the whole Republican platform for the last 30 years has been to appeal to whites, especially males, to vote against the blacks, and to ignore that they are screwing themselves even more. A second component of this is sexism. As we saw in the recent election, where two Republican candidates for the Senate virtually endorsed rape, the fact that the large majority of social benefits go to women [and often, their children] is another reason why ignorant, poor, whites oppose such assistance. It is another form of male social control by and for those who have nothing in life except their color and gonads. That so many politicians successfully pander to such people says a lot [most of it bad] about both their audience and the politicians themselves. That such things are now acceptable in American political and social discourse tells us a lot [most of it really bad] about the USA.


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