Fatalism, Polling Data and Experimental Philosophy

by John Holbo on November 24, 2011

Katherine Rampell takes note of a Pew poll result. Respondents were asked whether they agreed that ‘success in life is determined by forces outside our control’. Only 32% of Americans agreed, whereas, for example, 72% of Germans did. I suppose this question is as bad as it is by design. (Pew pollsters aren’t stupid, I think.) It’s a kind of dog whistle values question, since it’s too imprecise to be anything else. It basically says: if you had to pick one of two statements that you don’t actually believe, to say you believe, by way of signaling your attitudes about social justice and the value of hard work, which would it be – that everyone determines their own destiny %100 or 0%? (True, there might be a few considered fatalists out there, who sincerely believe the latter. But few enough that they should hardly register. And obviously no one would sincerely go for the former option, despite the fact that most Americans did.)

That’s why it’s a values question. Even so, wouldn’t it be better to conjoin this values dog whistle with some non-dog whistle questions in the topical vicinity? I mean: obviously yes. More is better. But more specifically: it would be interesting to try to determine to what extent people actually think, practically, about their own lives and those of others, in such extreme, total voluntarist-or-fatalist terms, when not dog whistled into picking one or the other extreme. To what degree, and in what cases, do people believe themselves, and others, to be in control of the course of their lives? My empirically unsupported suspicion is that people would turn out to be pretty similar in their beliefs, across partisan lines and cross-culturally, if you took care not to blow the dog whistle.

What do you think?

{ 89 comments }

1

QB 11.24.11 at 5:01 am

I think this has been studied, and cross-cultural differences have been found to exist: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Locus_of_Control

2

John Holbo 11.24.11 at 6:13 am

Well OK, then. I just took a little quiz, linked from the wiki page:

http://www.similarminds.com/locus.html

And came up 56% internal – that is, slightly on the ‘I’m in control’ side. Possibly people like me, who are in the middle, feel more resistant to being told to opt for one or the other extreme. I’m not poised to tip either way.

The wiki article implies that there is significant variation but doesn’t actually cite any figures about degree or extent of all that. I suppose I could follow it up.

It also seems a bit strange to treat divergent judgments as different character traits or personality types, since obviously quite a bit of difference in judgment has to do with just plain where the locus of control actually is. The article notes that people’s internality goes up, until middle age, then decreases. But surely that is because, actually, kids and old people are genuinely less in control of their lives than healthy adults at the peak of their earning power. I’m sure if you did a survey in a prison you would find that respondents don’t feel very in control. Likewise, poor people. Likewise, rich people feel pretty in control it seems. No surprise. There is, of course, a problem trying to control for these factors since you would need a true theory of the degree to which people actually are in control of their lives. Hmmm, yes.

3

MS 11.24.11 at 6:57 am

For what it is worth, my personal experience is that there are very significant differences between Europeans and Americans on this issue. Consider how difficult it is to get most Americans to accept social explanations for common events. I think many Americans don’t even intuitively understand social explanations.

When the housing bubble burst and economic collapse hit it was very easy to get people to believe that it was due to some sort of personal behavior. Yes, they saw it as collective but many assumed it was due to particular people having houses that were too large for them, etc. Individual Americans had become too greedy and charged up their charge cards–that was the first meme out of the block. Even now, many people don’t get that larger social and economic causes played a role. When there is 25% real unemployment you have people insisting that every unemployed person should get a job. And I think these are well meaning people–but they honestly believe that since there are actual jobs open in the country, each person should get one and it is their own fault if they don’t. This kind of thinking is so much less common in Europe. It honestly seems to me as if Europeans tend to reason differently than Americans about social and economic events and are more willing to regard others in their society as at the mercy of those events.

I’ve often thought that what I’m referring to as the European view is much more true while the (somewhat distorted) American view has the potential to be advantageous to the individual. There is a sense in which believing you are the master of your own fate makes you willing to try things and take chances that can lead to better outcomes. Fatalism saps motivation. At the same time, the European view makes people better citizens since they are less likely to blame their fellow citizens for their misfortunes and more likely to see their fate as shared with others.

It may be that Americans willingness to accept a punitive (or retributive) perspective toward fellow Americans is due to this different emphasis on the person’s total responsibility for their fate–but I think I’ve wildly speculated enough for one blog comment.

4

MS 11.24.11 at 6:59 am

Also, I wonder if ‘The Secret’ sells well in Europe. If it does, then maybe that’s evidence for…something.

5

Jamie 11.24.11 at 7:05 am

I’m intentionally answering before looking at the links in the last two comments. although I think having read them and thinking for 39 seconds has already biased me.

I would call my circumstance about 50% personal initiative, 40% circumstance, 10% random factors. I’m an outlier, in that by economic measurements, I’ve gained an order or magnitude over my last generation (modulo feedback mechanisms based on quaint notions).

I have a relative who is a generation older than me, and who hasn’t done well. He has his problems, including self-caused health issues that are catching up. I asked him some questions a while back that were, although not like this, and informal (and this is anecdata, of course) and he was happy to cop to 95% personal responsibility for his plight.

It would be interesting to try to test the extent to which U.S. Americans privatize personal failure and socialize success stories (Steve Jobs: The Movie is apparently in the works). I’m on the professional side of the divide, I have no idea how to go about asking that in a rigorous way.

6

Chris Bertram 11.24.11 at 7:45 am

51/49 for me.

The chapter on birth date in Gladwell’s Outliers is pretty good on this. Generally, which generation you’re in has a very big effect. Pity the poor kids graduating onto today’s job market (especially in continental Europe).

7

Khan 11.24.11 at 8:07 am

69/31, which explains my political philosophy quite nicely: very sympathetic to libertarians, yet frustrated when they don’t acknowledge the role of luck and circumstances on personal outcomes.

8

Phil 11.24.11 at 8:17 am

To quote Hugo Williams, there are two types of people – those who think there are two types of people, and those who don’t. I confess to being one of the former; I like this sort of if you had to choose, gun to your head, if you had to choose just one question and think the results can be revealing. (My students don’t always agree, it has to be said.)

My empirically unsupported suspicion is that people would turn out to be pretty similar in their beliefs, across partisan lines and cross-culturally, if you took care not to blow the dog whistle.

This may be true, but the dog-whistle question would still be interesting. Let’s assume that people are living their lives in pretty much the same way, and that the hypothetical non-dog-whistle questions would get at that. (This is a very large assumption when you think about national variations in employment law, healthcare provision, property ownership etc, but never mind.) The d0g-whistle question gets at how people make sense of how they live their lives – and that’s important in contexts where expressive behaviour dominates, e.g. voting.

9

Phil 11.24.11 at 8:30 am

a punitive (or retributive) perspective

The trouble is, it’s both. A coherent retributivism would pay due attention to cardinal as well as ordinal proportionality – not just making the determination “is crime A a bit worse than crime B?” (something which the US justice system has off to a fine art) but also anchoring the scale at a low enough point to match the triviality of the least serious crimes, while leaving enough headroom for the most serious crimes to receive the most severe sentences humanely possible. It seems to me that the retributivism of the US system is distorted by the unstated assumption that just about everyone who comes through the door needs punishing good and hard – and the worse offenders, why, they need punishing even harder.

10

Billikin 11.24.11 at 9:02 am

“Pew pollsters aren’t stupid, I think.”

Is that “Pew” or “Few”?

(Sorry. ;))

11

Tim Wilkinson 11.24.11 at 9:16 am

It also seems a bit strange to treat divergent judgments as different character traits or personality types

Yes, this is one of the things that makes psychology look silliest. As you might imagine, I see this kind of problem a lot in dreadful research about ‘belief in conspiracy theories’.

One might think this especially odd since another thing I also see in literature of the CT-WTF-LOL genre is a good deal of mention of the supposed ‘fundamental attribution error’.

12

Xerographica 11.24.11 at 9:38 am

Locus of control, which has already been mentioned, is the first thing that comes to mind…but Self-efficacy and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are two relevant psychological concepts that haven’t been mentioned yet. Well…then the debate probably just boils down to nature versus nurture.

Obama promised everybody “change” but certainly the OWS protesters don’t seem to feel like any real change was delivered. Does anybody feel like Obama followed through with his promise of real change? What would qualify as real change?

In the Bible “miracles” were possible if people had enough faith… “Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done.” Mathew 21:21

How many people have lost faith in the current political system? How pervasive is political alienation? Who has the real power?

In ancient times people believed that the king had “divine authority”. Then some Barons lost faith in the king and took the power of the purse away from the king. Did that qualify as real change? Since then we’ve learned how scarce resources are efficiently allocated. Yet…parliament still maintains the power of the purse.

If we truly want real change…if we truly want to empower people…then we should allow taxpayers to directly allocate their taxes…aka pragmatarianism. Your ability to genuinely consider the validity of this idea reflects the degree to which your thinking has conformed to traditions. Conforming your thinking to traditions restricts your ability to think outside of the box.

Contrary to the bible…real change is not the result of faith…it is the result of doubt.

Tradition, thou art for suckling children,
Thou art the enlivening milk for babes;
But no meat for men is in thee.
Then —
But, alas, we all are babes. – Stephen Crane

There is no logical or rational basis for 535 congresspeople allocating people’s taxes. The only way to ensure the efficient allocation of taxes is to allow taxpayers to directly allocate their taxes. This would force taxpayers to consider the opportunity costs of their taxes. Millions and millions of taxpayers deciding whether they wanted to have their cake OR eat their cake would reveal their true values and guarantee the best possible use of limited public funds.

13

Ben 11.24.11 at 9:53 am

@Khan, the first problem for a libertarian in acknowledging the role of luck, is it usually a precursor to picking his pocket. It’s considered polite to attribute one’s success to luck but if the chap is going to follow that up with “therefore you owe me half your money” he will get a defensive response instead.

The second problem is that oft times people will try to tell you that native talent is a matter of luck. If you count native talent as a one’s birthright, and restrict “luck” to things outside of oneself, you can begin to have a conversation. If you consider native talent to be luck, you are having a political disagreement with your interlocutor, not an empirical one.

Of course luck has a large role – but as Hayek pointed out (Constitution of Liberty), it’s impossible to tell in general whether someone’s success is largely luck or whether it is largely talent and work. The person best placed to know is the man himself and he will find it difficult to acknowledge the opportunities he missed if he is intent on mooching! So if you try to redistribute the benefit due to luck you will also redistribute the benefit due to hard work and talent, discouraging both to the detriment of society as a whole.

Finally of course the whole argument assumes that opportunities are rare, such that only a few ever get them. But if chances are common enought that everyone gets several, while they may individually be due to luck, overall life success is not. How many chances do you get? I am not really sure but I know people who could be comfortably off and successful but instead are drifters and moochers, because they throw away chance after chance, and squander their obvious talents .

As Jefferson said “I am a great believer in luck – and I find the harder I work the more I have of it”.

14

Mandos 11.24.11 at 10:23 am

I ended up 35/65, External Locus of Control. Because,

The second problem is that oft times people will try to tell you that native talent is a matter of luck. If you count native talent as a one’s birthright, and restrict “luck” to things outside of oneself, you can begin to have a conversation. If you consider native talent to be luck, you are having a political disagreement with your interlocutor, not an empirical one.

This is, of course, the standard propertarian slight of hand, to limit the discussion of luck by defining a concept of “birthright” beforehand. So of course, it is going to become a “political” discussion.

I’m very much in favour of the state picking the pockets of such people.

15

Michael 11.24.11 at 10:38 am

Turn this question around: to what extent did the Columbine killers do so because of circumstances, or because of their own will? As Claudia Strauss showed [article in Current Anthropologist], this question raises a huge debate, and demonstrates how variable and varying opinion is in the US. It might be better to ask, ‘what rhetorical work is being done when blame / responsibility is being attributed to a person or to circumstances?’

Strauss places in evidence a campaign in her child’s school, which has a substantial population of kids bussed in from the inner city. Posters were put up with the messages ‘Make good choices’ and ‘you choose to make good choices’. When a kid did something objectionable, a note was sent home saying ‘X had a time out today. He chose to … [throw a rock, run in the hallway, etc.]’.

Sure, this inculcates that idea of personal agency and responsibility in spades. But note too that, in that atmosphere, you could never just be a kid. You could never just do something because of high spirits. You would have that embarrassing judgment laid on you from the outset. Powerful and, to my way of thinking, damaging rhetoric.

16

roger 11.24.11 at 10:41 am

Hmm, one could easily believe that the “I” is control of very little in the course of one’s life and still believe that it is useful to have the user-delusion – the one that the self is in control of very much. In fact, if you believed that outside factors (by which I also assume one means compulsions, the unconscious, the libido, etc.) determined your course of life, you would also believe that those factors determined whether you believed you were in control (or that it was a good thing for you to be in control) or not, so that you could believe you were in control and objectively think that outside factors make it impossible for you not to believe you are in control.

Similarly, the strong I belief would have to account, somehow, for the fact that other people don’t have that strong I belief – but I think the strong I belief is much more leery about the idea that you could believe that believing a fiction was a good course of conduct.

17

Ray 11.24.11 at 10:57 am

I find that the more my parents have good genes, feed me well and provide me with a stimulating environment where worries about shelter, heating, stability etc do not arise, send me to a good school and take an interest in my education, in a society where there are good schools and medical care, and I don’t suffer from easily curable diseases or bombs dropped on my head by well-meaning foreigners… the more native talent I have.

18

Ben 11.24.11 at 12:22 pm

@roger, don’t you include “compulsions, the unconscious, the libido, etc” as part of the self?

They seem like big parts of the self to me. Still, I guess if you exclude all our actual personality traits and motivations, then yes, most things will be determined by outside factors. I suppose it isn’t someone’s fault if they don’t have a work ethic: Clearly social justice requires that they be compensated for this bad luck by those who do. (Under no circumstances should we encourage them to get one by rewarding work and punishing idleness.)

@Ray, yes, very clever. No doubt that is also true. But the analogy fails: When Jefferson recommends hard work, that’s something everyone can do; When you recommend going back in time to change one’s upbringing, not so much.

Again, Hayek’s point is not that luck isn’t unfair, it is that there is nothing you can do about that since you cannot distinguish what is due to luck and what is due to virtue. If you try to eliminate luck you can only do so by eliminating virtue too.

19

Neville Morley 11.24.11 at 12:22 pm

I’m busy feeling disturbed by what seems to be the implication of the psychological studies that what matters is one’s individual balance between internality and externality, with the nature of the external forces being entirely irrelevant to this. In other words, a belief in the existence and importance of social and economic structures, or on environmental constraints and the ‘limits of the possible’ in Braudelian terms, is really no different from a belief in astrology, and hence it’s little more than chance that someone with a predominantly external locus of control should fixate on the movements of the stars rather than the forces of class society or vice versa.

20

Ebenezer Scrooge 11.24.11 at 12:29 pm

I think if you looked at Americans, you would find tremendous differences within groups. The Scots-Irish “nobody’s fault but mine” cultural trope could argue for a strong locus of control in, say, Appalachia. Catholics might be very different. (Just wild guesses here.)

21

Ray 11.24.11 at 12:40 pm

Ben – happily, we don’t have to go back in time, because there are new people being born every day. And we can make sure all of these new people are provided with food, shelter, medicine, and education, regardless of how lucky they were in the parents they were born with or country they were born in. (which won’t eliminate luck entirely, but would go quite a long way)
Then the hard workers will have the reward of knowing that their success has less to do with luck, and more to do with virtue. So everyone is happy.

22

Sam Clark 11.24.11 at 12:47 pm

‘If you consider native talent to be luck, you are having a political disagreement with your interlocutor, not an empirical one.’

No, you’re having a philosophical argument about the nature of responsibility. You can’t dodge that by assuming bad faith on the part of people who disagree with you, much though Hayek tried.

23

Ben 11.24.11 at 12:48 pm

@Mandos:
“This is, of course, the standard propertarian slight of hand, to limit the discussion of luck by defining a concept of “birthright” beforehand. “

This is, of course, the standard communitarian sleight of hand, to limit the discussion of luck by denying the concept of birthright.

In each case the foundational assumption drives the conclusion. Of course it does: How could it be otherwise? It’s a logical argument, so the conclusions can only be different if the axioms are different. So it is a political question at root: Are people entitled to their very selves, or are they chattels of the state?

“I’m very much in favour of the state picking the pockets of such people.”

Of course you are.

24

roger 11.24.11 at 1:08 pm

Ben, the self is traditionally considered transparent to itself and its work and projects are structured by intentions it can explain. So, in that sense, the unconscious would certainly not be considered part of the ‘self’ – since the self has imperfect knowledge of it and lacks the ability not only to control it, but to know when it is responding not to conscious cues, but to unconscious ones.

As to whether the self is the chattel of the state, etc. I’d say first we’d have to look at hard work, which you seem to think is good. If it is good, then I imagine it is good in itself, so that the question of money for that work is indifferent. Thus, there are two separate questions for you. Myself, I think if you accept money, you already are the chattel of the state.

But that is a much less interesting question than that of the extent to which we can grant the I power in the destiny of persons, which is a question that is much more extensive than the merely local questions of a capitalist order that is visibly not going to last another hundred years. .

25

Brett Bellmore 11.24.11 at 1:13 pm

I’m pretty high on the “it’s my own fault” end of the scale. Having a bit of a tendency towards depression inclines me to a degree of objectivity regarding my own life, (“Depressive realism”) and as Orwell said, “A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.” How can I attribute my present circumstances to fate, when I can clearly identify a series of decision points where I screwed up my own life? Even in some cases knowing quite well I was making a mistake…

I also wonder where the utility is in attributing one’s circumstances to fate. Very few people are actually in situations where they have no control at all over their lives; We may live like ships at sea, unable to control the wind, but it’s up to us whether we run with it or tack. In the short run this may not mean much, but it has a powerful long term influence on your life.

Accordingly, it’s not terribly useful to discount the effectiveness of one’s own choices.

26

bert 11.24.11 at 1:15 pm

“Success in life is determined by outside forces” has all kinds of problems. Among them, is God an outside force? The American tendency to be fobbed off with the supernatural is a factor you’d need to separate out, I think.

The question that caught my eye was “Our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior”. Less than half of Americans agree, a drop of 11% from a decade ago. Almost the same number of Germans agree (49% US, 47% Germany), while the figure for France, surprisingly, is 27%.

27

chris y 11.24.11 at 1:37 pm

Evidently the French have a low opinion of themselves as people, because I find it difficult to imagine that they’ve suddenly stopped believing in the superiority of their culture.

On the main topic, why are we forced to choose? “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

28

chris 11.24.11 at 2:01 pm

It basically says: if you had to pick one of two statements that you don’t actually believe, to say you believe, by way of signaling your attitudes about social justice and the value of hard work, which would it be – that everyone determines their own destiny %100 or 0%?

ISTM that most people who are actually bothered by the false-dilemma aspect of the question’s literal wording (which allows for only one cause) will just mentally insert a “mostly” and answer accordingly. But some people aren’t nuancephilic (I know that’s not really a word, but hopefully you get the concept) enough to be bothered by this issue in the first place.

Anyway, it’s no real surprise (to me anyway) that a lot of Americans have their illusion of control cranked up to 11. Being the captain of your soul is a lot less enviable if your soul is dismasted by poverty, holed below the waterline by abusive parents, and being driven by a gale of oppression onto a lee shore of no economic prospects outside of crime. For example. But acknowledging that would be disruptive to our national mythos.

My empirically unsupported suspicion is that people would turn out to be pretty similar in their beliefs, across partisan lines and cross-culturally, if you took care not to blow the dog whistle.

I disagree, and I think this thread refutes you on this point. (Of course, I have the benefit of coming to the thread after there are already responses, which you didn’t when you wrote the original post.) There really are people who believe that their success isn’t dependent on the actions of anyone else in any way. This is, to me, obviously nuts, but they actually do believe it and act accordingly (including exhibiting contempt for anyone less successful, since *obviously* they just made worse choices).

So if you try to redistribute the benefit due to luck you will also redistribute the benefit due to hard work and talent, discouraging both to the detriment of society as a whole.

I think you just palmed a card there — talent IS due to luck. But even leaving that aside… true talent isn’t in it for the money anyway. The really great scientists, or writers, or inventors who really contribute to the advance of society are doing what they do because it’s what they want to do. Offering them more money to become investment bankers doesn’t sway them from pursuing their calling, so why would “threatening” that they will have the same quality of life as everyone else deter them?

It’s not much of a threat, really, is it? If someone is motivated primarily by a desire to have a better life *than others in society*, so that redistribution (of the type practiced in, say, Sweden, rather than strawman Harrison Bergeron scenarios) really *does* threaten their ambition, I’m thinking they don’t contribute much positive to society in the first place. Their kind of hard work we can all do without — it’s zero or negative sum in the first place.

On the other hand, if people just want a better life in absolute terms, they can achieve that in a redistributive society by making society better for everyone, since they’re part of everyone. (Yes, this is a lot harder work than taking advantage of others and calling it productivity.) Redistribution, in a way, is the invisible hand 2.0 — you can no longer get ahead by cheating others or keeping them down, but only by improving things for everyone.

Finally of course the whole argument assumes that opportunities are rare, such that only a few ever get them.

Well, duh. You can’t be a CEO unless someone else is the subordinate. Actually, a lot of someone elses. There’s a kind of social version of the Pauli exclusion principle — you can only get into one of those opportunity positions by waiting for someone else to retire out, or shoving them out. The degree of opportunity is practically defined by its rarity — if everyone could do it, then it wouldn’t be anything special when you did do it.

Entrepreneurship looks like an exception, but actually it isn’t — it just moves the competition from within-org-chart to between companies. You can’t be a *successful* entrepreneur unless you surpass one or more of the competitors who were in the field before. On top of that, most successful entrepreneurship requires subordinates anyway — and to come full circle, why would they accept the subordinate position in the first place, if not for the fact that they have few other options because of circumstances beyond their control? Well, I guess some of them may just be talented at the front-line position — cooking or fixing cars or whatever industry it is — and not want to move into management and have to stop doing the actual job, but in that case, it’s pretty clear that the manager is standing on the talent’s shoulders and not vice versa.

29

bert 11.24.11 at 2:19 pm

A couple of links in, you find Charles Blow declaring The Decline of American Exceptionalism.

bq. Perhaps even more striking was that, among young people (those ages 18 to 29), the percentage of Americans who believed that their culture was superior was lower than young citizens of Germany, Spain and Britain … We are settling into a dangerous national pessimism … We have to stop snuggling up to nostalgia, acknowledge that we have allowed a mighty country to be brought low and set a course to restitution. And that course is through hard work and tough choices. You choose greatness; it doesn’t choose you.

Which brings us back on topic, I guess.

30

chris 11.24.11 at 2:23 pm

Accordingly, it’s not terribly useful to discount the effectiveness of one’s own choices.

But is it useful to enhance it? Assuming that you live in a set of circumstances where your choices have some influence, but not complete control, over your outcomes (and this is probably the case for most people), is it worthwhile to believe that your choices have *more* influence than they actually do? Or is that only going to make you blame yourself over situations where you couldn’t really have done anything about them? That may be depressive, but it ain’t realism.

On the other hand, if you *succeed* due to circumstances beyond your control, believing that it was all you all the way isn’t depressive at all — I’m sure it feels great. But that isn’t realism either.

Life is a game of combined skill and chance, and like all such games, for any amount of skill you can have, there is an amount of luck that can overcome it, and if you play often enough, it will. But people don’t live enough different lives to fully appreciate that. Your decision leads, not to an outcome, but to a set of possible outcomes; but you don’t get to pick which outcome in that set you’re actually going to get. Not only does this make decisionmaking more complex, it means that the quality of the actual outcome you got doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of the decision you made.

If you actually play games of combined skill and chance, you’re probably already familiar with the fact that sometimes you played right and lost anyway. So why is that principle so hard for some people to apply to life?

Two slaves attempt to escape. One succeeds and the other is caught and publicly tortured to death to deter others. From an outcome-oriented perspective, it looks like one made the right choice and the other didn’t; but how can that be when they both made the *same* choice? Was it right for one and wrong for the other (and how could they have known)? Or is there something wrong with the idea of evaluating choices based on their outcomes?

I’m sure the successful escaped slave would be quite pleased with his decision, while at the same time, the recaptured one, facing execution the next morning, probably regrets it. Which, if either, is right? Or realistic in their evaluation of their choice and its effect on them?

31

Carlos Ferreira 11.24.11 at 2:27 pm

I agree with you.

Further, I am teaching a module on research design, and I am bringing this one to the lectures, see what my students think about it. Thanks!

32

Mandos 11.24.11 at 2:36 pm

Ben:

Of course you are.

Very specifically so. There ought to be a propertarian tax to compensate for the externalities created by people promulgating “libertarian” philosophies.

roger:

As to whether the self is the chattel of the state, etc. I’d say first we’d have to look at hard work, which you seem to think is good. If it is good, then I imagine it is good in itself, so that the question of money for that work is indifferent.

Yep, there’s no prior moral reason why the person who cleans the office and the person who sits in the office should be paid differently, except that someone has chosen to reward one and deny the other.

Taking the issue off the table by calling it somehow “political” (epithet) above and beyond the attribution of luck is the libertarian slight of hand.

33

Eli 11.24.11 at 3:00 pm

Given how subjective the meaning of these questions are, it would make sense that different countries would register different interpretations, and thus different answers – even though they may actually have similar philosophies or theories of mind.

For instance, in John’s quiz, I answered that I believe 100% in fate, as I see the physical universe as completely determined. But that’s quite different than an idea of fate as being directed by a supernatural force. Moreover I clearly make recognizable choices in my life. It’s juts that those choices, arising from prior causes, will have always been set.

Also, I believe that people have no ultimate freedom of will. Yet I believe we have will, and that consciousness can be greater or lesser. So we can be aware of different options, and have more choice. But that choice will always have come out of a determinative process, thus not ultimately free at all. However many people, in complete agreement with my intuition, would describe the situation quite differently.

34

Dragon-King Wangchuck 11.24.11 at 3:05 pm

43-57. I blame society.

I suppose I’d have come out further on the external side if it wasn’t so tightly linked with superstition. I mean sure, people who are superstitious clearly show external locus of control – however, the reverse is not necessarily true. Actually, check that first assumption too. The Pew poll shows Americans at least likely to agree with outside forces affecting their lives and most likely to agree with religion being very important in their lives.

35

Ben 11.24.11 at 3:10 pm

@chris:

“So if you try to redistribute the benefit due to luck you will also redistribute the benefit due to hard work and talent, discouraging both to the detriment of society as a whole.”

I think you just palmed a card there—talent IS due to luck. But even leaving that aside… true talent isn’t in it for the money anyway. The really great scientists, or writers, or inventors who really contribute to the advance of society are doing what they do because it’s what they want to do.

I didn’t palm the card – it was explicit in my first comment “If you consider native talent to be luck … you are having a political disagreement [with a libertarian]”.

Bully for the really great ones? Beethoven, probably. Einstein, definitely. But your average plumber, mechanic, physician? He can easily get into the top income tax bracket. Yes, he will enjoy his work – it is possible to enjoy almost any job, particularly if you have the pride of being good at it. But do you really think he has nothing he would rather be doing? I don’t think so.

Even if talent is something which is undeserved and should be appropriated – which I don’t agree with since to me it is an intrinsic part of the self – it still needs to be developed by hard work. Appropriating the value of talent will discourage it from being developed.

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Dragon-King Wangchuck 11.24.11 at 3:20 pm

Very specifically so. There ought to be a propertarian tax to compensate for the externalities created by people promulgating “libertarian” philosophies.

How does one +1 a comment here?

to whit:

The person best placed to know is the man himself and he will find it difficult to acknowledge the opportunities he missed if he is intent on mooching!

Hee hee. Hordes of unwashed masses with theft in their hearts and the destruction of virtue as their battlecry. Only the super-achieving worthies born with a just and noble birthright can stop them from destroying the world!

37

Mandos 11.24.11 at 3:31 pm

I didn’t palm the card – it was explicit in my first comment “If you consider native talent to be luck … you are having a political disagreement [with a libertarian]”.

That *was* the card-palming.

38

OCS 11.24.11 at 3:51 pm

It’s all about the bell curves.

Imagine a graph that starts with the crappiest possible outcome (homelessness, disease, early death) on the left, and the best possible outcome (plenty of money, well-educated, loving family) on the right. I think the circumstances you’re born into (poverty vs. wealth) or have thrust upon you (good health vs. bad) determines where your bell curve of possibilities sits.

Born into poverty to a drug-addicted mother and attending an inner city school? You’re shifted way over to the left. Most people in your circumstances aren’t going to do well and a lot will do horribly, although there will be a few in the rightward tail of the curve who manage to do better. Born to a well-off, loving, stable family and sent to a private school? Your curve is all the way to the right. There is a leftward tail consisting mostly of people in your circumstances with mental health and substance abuse problems (I’d guess), but mostly people in your circumstances will do pretty well, and a few of them will do fantastically well.

I think people who emphasize personal responsibility are paying attention to the tails (a few poor people end up doing well, a few rich people do badly). I tend to pay attention to the big middle and figure it’s circumstance.

39

MPAVictoria 11.24.11 at 3:59 pm

“I find that the more my parents have good genes, feed me well and provide me with a stimulating environment where worries about shelter, heating, stability etc do not arise, send me to a good school and take an interest in my education, in a society where there are good schools and medical care, and I don’t suffer from easily curable diseases or bombs dropped on my head by well-meaning foreigners… the more native talent I have.”

I want to print off this comment, laminate it, frame it and mount it on my wall.

40

Matt McIrvin 11.24.11 at 4:01 pm

It would also be interesting to slice it three ways: (1) external social forces vs. (2) hard work/free will/choices vs. (3) inborn, immutable genetic qualities.

My gut sense is that Americans actually ascribe a lot of things not so much to #2 as to #3, and accept relatively low social mobility in part because they think they’re seeing the end state of sorting by inborn virtue. In certain specialized areas, such as academic skill in science and math, there’s an overwhelming sense that to do well you need to have a special knack that can’t be learned, and that a primary function of the educational system is sorting.

41

Matt McIrvin 11.24.11 at 4:08 pm

…And, of course, this interacts tremendously with attitudes toward race and especially sex. Girls at some point absorb the idea that girls don’t have the math knack.

42

Jason 11.24.11 at 4:24 pm

I imagine the results of this question are entirely cultural differences. The correct answer is zero. Not only do we not control our subatomic particles, but even psychology has shown we make up post hoc rationalizations for our behavior and he prime function of our “conscious” self is to veto impulses and ideas formed by a more autonomous system. [Reading Kahneman’s new book so I have a low opinion of our own autonomy right now :) ]

43

Bill Barnes 11.24.11 at 4:27 pm

Odd that this discussion goes on without any reference to the revolution in the science of brain development over the last 20 years or so, and the linkage to the developments in environmental science. It is now established beyond question that the development and functioning of the brain structures that condition an individual’s capacity for impulse control, concentration, learning, “executive function” generally, are in turn conditioned by the pregnant/nursing mother’s environment and experiences — because such determine the nutritional/hormonal/chemical input to the fetus and infant, which in turn determine levels of gene expression and brain structure development in the fetus/infant.

44

Dragon-King Wangchuck 11.24.11 at 4:33 pm

It’s this “hard work” thing that really gets me. That “working hard” guarantees success and that those in bad situations chose to be there because they hate “hard work.”

It’s nonsense. Who works harder, migrant workers doing the seasonal back-breaking labour for minimum wage or the guy that hires them? Your “over-worked” A-type personality non-stop CEO spends most of his time in meetings or on the phone while sitting in a comfy chair. Yet if I load sixteen tons, what do I get? The whole “hard work” thing is a fairy tale that successful people tell themselves to feel better about inequality.

Here’s a question: of all OECD countries, which one has the highest number of hours worked per employee? Hint: it starts with a “G”.

45

Shay Begorrah 11.24.11 at 4:34 pm

chris@29 on mistaking success for virtue

If you actually play games of combined skill and chance, you’re probably already familiar with the fact that sometimes you played right and lost anyway. So why is that principle so hard for some people to apply to life?

Very nicely summed up. I have long suspected that what decides how far to the left of the politics line you are is your summed human empathy and understanding of probability.

46

Dragon-King Wangchuck 11.24.11 at 4:35 pm

Hint: it starts with a “G”.

Actually it doesn’t. I missed Korea.

47

Mandos 11.24.11 at 5:03 pm

Yeah, this whole “profligate Greece” thing is nuts. They’d still have been in trouble if they had been paying their taxes. When? Might have been later, for all we know. But you can’t have an overconsuming Greece without having an overexporting Germany…

48

Avi 11.24.11 at 5:03 pm

“But more specifically: it would be interesting to try to determine to what extent people actually think, practically, about their own lives and those of others, in such extreme, total voluntarist-or-fatalist terms, when not dog whistled into picking one or the other extreme.”

That’s exactly what Pew did, but you appear to have misunderstood it. People generally understand a survey question as the generalization it is. Americans tend to believe they have control over their destiny; Germans apparently generally feel otherwise.

49

Billikin 11.24.11 at 5:13 pm

bert:

Charles Blow: “Perhaps even more striking was that, among young people (those ages 18 to 29), the percentage of Americans who believed that their culture was superior was lower than young citizens of Germany, Spain and Britain … We are settling into a dangerous national pessimism … We have to stop snuggling up to nostalgia, acknowledge that we have allowed a mighty country to be brought low and set a course to restitution. And that course is through hard work and tough choices.”

I was with Blow (as quoted) up until that last sentence. One of our TV stations has been showing “Paladin” reruns, which seem to me to reflect pretty well the American values of the time. Self-sufficiency is important, of course, as is heroism. But so is community. Forging civilization in the Wild West demanded it. There is no shortage of hard work in America. (I don’t know about the people that Blow hangs out with.) Nor is there a shortage of tough choices. But the sense of community is fractured. The Me Generation seems to have led to an every-man-for-himself ethic. But as Red Green says, “We’re all in this together.” The sense of community is what has to be restored, IMO.

50

QB 11.24.11 at 5:49 pm

JH @2: “There is, of course, a problem trying to control for these factors since you would need a true theory of the degree to which people actually are in control of their lives.”

You can set up an experimental situation (e.g. a switch that is more or less reliably connected to a light) in which the actual amount of control is known to the experimenter but not to the subject, and ask the subject to estimate it. Then correlate with culture, or individual personality, or whatever.

See Marty Seligman’s books for a sustained attempt to draw conclusions from this kind of thing.

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bianca steele 11.24.11 at 5:58 pm

OCS@37: I think people who emphasize personal responsibility are paying attention to the tails (a few poor people end up doing well, a few rich people do badly). I tend to pay attention to the big middle and figure it’s circumstance.

I wonder if people are reading “success” as “not becoming a total loser.” It doesn’t seem unreasonable to hold people responsible for, say, not drinking too much. Also, I guess, it doesn’t seem unreasonable for a factory worker to think, “I could have gone to college and become a manager and even a CEO if I’d wanted to boss other people around and work 100 hour weeks, or I could have joined a rock band and played filthy bars every night if I’d wanted to, but I’m pretty happy as I am, and I’m responsible for the kind of success I have.” It doesn’t seem unreasonable to think, “Justin Bieber is successful because he’s talented and works hard and takes care of his skin.” Is what comes to mind that, or whether the CEO of GM got where he was by luck, or by hard work and merit?

Chris Bertram@6:
But Gladwell gives more than enough data to show that the issue isn’t birth date but the unconscious choices made by coaches, and implies that parents, say, could “game the system” by buying their kids extra help, or that younger kids could demand extra help or otherwise show that they’re worth the extra effort. I’m never really sure what his point is (until I read the media coverage and find out what the experts think he’s saying).

Michael@14:
The language used when discussing, for example, middle school kids messaging nude pictures of themselves and one another, is, often: “they lack judgment.” I honestly don’t know if this is supposed to be expected at their age (so the technology should be taken away from them or more closely monitored), or if there’s supposed to be a problem with vast numbers of eleven year olds who lack judgment (who are the ones doing the messaging).

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SusanC 11.24.11 at 7:10 pm

As you say, it’s a “dog whistle” question.

My first reaction was that the “forces outside our control” have gone way up in the last couple of years. We’ve already seen some pretty bad effects from the ongoing financial collapse, and it’s looking fairly random whether (e.g.) you loose your job, your employer goes out of busines entirely, your pension becomes worthless, your entire ***ing country goes under, the currency becomes worthless, rioters burn your house down, you get shot dead by the police … etc. [Ranked roughly in decrasing order of probability estimate]

Second reaction: at any moment, there are plenty of foolish things you could do that have really bad outcomes. (e.g. last time I drove my car, no doubt I made dozens of decisions where the wrong choice would have killed me). So in one sense, opportunities to screw up by making a bad decision predominate. But on the other hand, most of us mostly don’t make obviously bad decisons (more strongly: I very rarely do something while knowing at the time that it’s a bad idea[*]) so most of the risk is due to the random factors.

[*] Some obvious counterexamples occur to me in hindsight.

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Billikin 11.24.11 at 7:52 pm

Not being familiar with the term, “dog whistle question”, I did a web search. Here is the best thing I found:

“I bought a silent dog whistle and it says to blow on it and screw the little nut back and forth until you find your dogs frequency. My question is this, it makes a noise the whole time; does this mean i am a dog or wolf like in the movie Teen Wolf?”

;)

From http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20070919172637AA3HUMW

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novakant 11.24.11 at 8:14 pm

If this is supposed to be a philosophical question then the problem of free will needs to be taken seriously. It’s understandable that its existence is always taken for granted since so much is riding on the concept. What is strange though is that few bother to even attempt to define the concept and are satisfied with some folk psychology notions that don”t explain anything.

Also, “success” needs a lot of unpacking if it’s supposed to describe something individuals actually aspire to and not just a rehash of prevalent bourgeois values.

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C. D. Ward 11.24.11 at 8:15 pm

…it is possible to enjoy almost any job, particularly if you have the pride of being good at it.

Millions of people people who have worked on the floor at Walmart, Starbucks or a call-center would disagree. (There are more – those are just the fundamentally unenjoyable jobs I have first-hand experience of.)

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Jacob T. Levy 11.24.11 at 8:44 pm

This is the kind of problem for which anchoring vignettes were created: http://www.compare-project.org/anchoring-vignettes.html

57

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.24.11 at 9:28 pm

People believe whatever they are destined to believe. Pollsters poll whatever they are destined to poll.

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Bruce Wilder 11.24.11 at 9:35 pm

Much of what we might classify as “belief” falls into a category of statements or propositions, which do not have a stable relationship with reality. If my friend, say, has a terribly accident, but survives, I’m likely to help her rationalize: “you were so lucky, another couple of inches and you’d be dead . . .”

Obviously, “you were lucky” to have a non-fatal accident is not exactly objectively true, but it feeds our narcissistic needs for security and meaning and all that sort of thing. ‘success in life is determined by forces outside our control’ ties into those kinds of narcissistic belief systems, which sustain our sense of ourselves, or meaning in life, etc. It shouldn’t be surprising that these beliefs tie to personal identity and tribal political identities, or that their prevalence varies between cultures.

It seems genuinely weird to me that anyone would think “people would turn out to be pretty similar in their beliefs, across partisan lines and cross-culturally”, even though I think the need for such beliefs is basic. Holbo needs to get out more. Travel. Read some novels.

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bianca steele 11.24.11 at 9:40 pm

The “locus of control” idea is interesting, though. Do we think people ought to have a more internal locus of control, generally, or less? Do we think workers ought to have a high l-o-c or low? Do we think rich kids ought to have a high l-o-c or low? Even, do the words “internal” and “external” have the same meaning everywhere (I’m thinking of some theological beliefs, like AA’s, which lays heavy stress on lack of personal control but might seem to use all the rhetoric of strong internal l-o-c.)

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Chrisb 11.24.11 at 10:19 pm

People, people. Let’s concentrate on what we can all agree is important. That wasn’t Jefferson, it was Stephen Leacock. And nobody with an ear could ever have thought otherwise.

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Chrisb 11.24.11 at 10:26 pm

Also remember the Stephen Potter insight, from Gamesmanship; if you happen to be ahead at halftime in the match, it’s much more effective to attribute it to luck (“No, I’m a fearful duffer, I just happen to be having one of those inexplicable runs when you can’t do a thing wrong”) than to skill, in that your opponent will then be discouraged and put off his game by the thought that he’s fighting not you but heaven.

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Watson Ladd 11.24.11 at 10:33 pm

But how much purchasing success is purchasing success, and how much is having the correct values? If your parents teach you that learning is important and this makes you stay in school, should we count that as a choice or not? As unreasonable as people are poor because they want to be is, some advantages take the form of better assessment of choices.

There’s also the question of whether desert justifies takings. If I start choking in a restaurant, no matter how entitled you are to the time spent with family, you better come over and help me. Likewise we should feel a responsibility to ensure that people aren’t dying of malaria. But does that really mean we can’t say we are entitled to the resources we are asked to use on behalf of others?

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Khan 11.24.11 at 11:03 pm

Hee. Ben probably would have shown up regardless of what I said, but I can’t help feeling a bit like I trolled him into defending libertarianism against attacks from all sides. That wasn’t my intention. In fact, Ben, I think you read too much into my “frustrated” comment and not enough into my “very sympathetic” comment. I actually agree with you more than most others in this thread. Think of me as being 2/3 on your side. (BTW, I’m also a “Ben”, so this whole experience feels a bit like arguing with myself.)

I believe that if one assumes (as you seem to) that, regardless of childhood circumstances, people entering adulthood must take full responsibility for their talent and good judgment, or lack thereof (others CTers clearly disagree, but I’ll get to that) … If you assume that, then take the sum of all internal and external influences across all the outcomes of the entire population, I believe personal choices account for well north of 75% of the outcomes. Granted, within that overall distribution, some individuals get much more than their share of bad luck, which is sometimes too much to overcome.

Moreover, I truly do think it is fair to judge individual adults without taking their childhoods into account, even if they had very bad luck in the past – be it bad genetics, bad upbringing, or other bad circumstances. Regardless of how they came to be the person they are, you must judge them by the decisions they make in the here and now.

Here’s a microcosm, which serves both as an example and as an explanation of my own perspective: I’ve known two individuals, my best friend and my step-brother, since I was twelve years old. My best friend has suffered from severe health problems his entire life, lost his mother at an early age, and was raised by an abusive asshole of a father. When my friend finally called the cops at the age of 15, he went to live in a group home for the next two years. (Fun fact: abuse cases like my friend typically get thrown into what amounts to a halfway house for juvy, where the delinquents outnumber them by about 10:1.) Despite all of this, my friend is quite successful today, pursuing a career in journalism.

My step-brother didn’t have any health problems, and was never abused. He had access to everything I had, and I turned out pretty well, IMHO. He’s not inherently stupid, at least in conversation. And yet, he was expelled from three high-schools, barely passed the GED, then went to a not-very-difficult college on his mother’s dime but dropped out after less than a semester. All this was overlaid by a string of petty crimes and personal betrayals. By now he has been effectively disowned by most members of the family.

Many CTers clearly think these two individuals are the exceptions and not the rule; however, my general experience with people who regularly receive bad outcomes is that they usually have poor attitudes and poorer work ethics, and vice-versa for the good outcomes.

That’s what I meant by being “very sympathetic to libertarians”.

But.

Three things: First, my friend’s “severe health problems” were caused by congenital birth defects, which required an average of one or two surgeries per year for the first decade of his life. His annual medical bills were regularly in the low to mid six figures; he survived only because the state paid those bills. Some bad luck is obviously independent of choice – even in the eyes of outside observers, whatever Hayek may have said.

Second, yes, if you wish to resolve all forms of bad outcome via direct hand-outs, then you’re certainly conflating bad luck with bad choices. However, accident and illness can usually be attributed much more to luck than they can to choice. As such, I’m okay with the idea of collectivist health care.

Third, I believe that it is in my own rational self-interest – that it is in everyone’s self-interest, whether or not they are rational enough to realize it – to ensure the human race produces the largest quantity possible of well-educated, self-sufficient, self-motivated adults. Doing this effectively and cost-efficiently requires universal services (notably high-quality education and affordable health care), which in turn require universal contribution.

That’s what I meant by being “frustrated” with libertarians.

FWIW, I debate politics all the time with that best friend of mine. This post made it especially clear to me that our biggest difference is one of psychology. He’s much more external than I am (understandably so, despite his success in overcoming external agents); our arguments amount to me trying to talk him out of what I see as fatalism, and him trying to talk me out of what he sees as a lack of empathy.

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Norwegian Guy 11.24.11 at 11:34 pm

I’m not sure that libertarians/propertarians really believe in such a strong internal locus of control. It seems like they usually attribute successes, and the failures of others, to internal factors. However, when they have problems themselves, they often blame the state/bureaucrats/taxes/Fed etc.

65

Peter T 11.24.11 at 11:49 pm

One assumption that might be questioned is that a lack of belief in personal control will foster attitudes that are not conducive to success. This is a bit too simple – there are multiple, connected beliefs involved.

Classical Greeks and Romans believed outcomes were in the hands of fortuna, Norse thought fate governed what happened, and Calvinists believed the ultimate outcome was God’s predestined choice. But none of these cultures are remarkable for lying back and taking it easy. One can see life as a game one is doomed to lose, but still believe that one should play as hard as one can. And presumably vice versa. And other variations.

And one finding of neuro-science is that our brains do not form unless given all kinds of input from other people – we are all built by and from other people. In some sense, my sense of myself is a cultural illusion. I personally find it hard to credit myself with having invented language, notions of free will and liberty, or a two millenia old heritage of political philosophy. But I think I would make a poor fist of life without them – and the countless other ghosts of the past in my head.

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Phil 11.25.11 at 12:03 am

Do we think people ought to have a more internal locus of control, generally, or less?

It depends what’s going to happen to you. Apparently, research says that people with a strong internal l.o.c. suffer more from becoming a victim of crime; if you go through life thinking that stuff just happens, it doesn’t offend your sense of the universe when some of that stuff is arbitrarily bad.

67

Bruce Wilder 11.25.11 at 12:26 am

WL@60: “does that really mean we can’t say we are entitled to the resources we are asked to use on behalf of others?”

You can certainly say it, and some will and some won’t. None of them should think they are making a statement of objective fact. These beliefs are more akin to the mythical explanations of religion. They are not scientific, not based on methodical inspection of mechanism and function in the objective world, though they may be, as social and personal psychology, part of the mechanism of social culture. They explain “meaning”. So, of course, many rich people would prefer an interpretation of the “meaning” of their own wealth, which is flattering to themselves. And, many poor people might prefer an interpretation that does not compel them to challenge a social order as unjust, especially an order in which they are relatively powerless, and therefore likely to lose in such a challenge.

I think one can safely say that these beliefs are likely to be diverse, for the same reason that strategies are, typically, diverse: there’s a complementarity advantage.

68

Sebastian 11.25.11 at 2:23 am

We’re talking about a cultural phenomenon where even the Europeans skew very strongly toward personal control. Arguing between the difference of the US version of that and say the Swedish or German versions is like arguing about a difference between 8 and 9 on a ten point scale.

Cultures that actually believe strongly in external control of personal circumstances tend to look much more like India.

69

Glen Tomkins 11.25.11 at 2:59 am

I believe that we are all inexorably fated to the inescapable exercise of free will.

It’s not some intermediate point between 100% and 0%, it’s both 100% and 0% at the same time. Which is probably one reason people so readily answer either 100% or 0%.

70

lurker 11.25.11 at 5:31 am

But the statement is actually:

“success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control”

Which is to say, not totally and exhaustively determined, but mostly determined. Does “success in life” not map as narrowly onto well predicted socioeconomic features of lives as I hear it as doing? Because otherwise this seems like an only somewhat fuzzy question to which the disagree response is just wrong.

71

roger 11.25.11 at 8:55 am

Perhaps it would be interesting to shift to what exactly is meant by ‘success in life’. Myself, I always think of that as a triad – having a full internal life, having good work, and finally being able to love and be loved. Even if I believed that my ego really controls some little piece of real estate in the world, namely me, it does seem that – at least as I am thinking of a successful life – I am way too dependent on others (peoples and structures) to claim that I create that success. For instance, there is no guarantee that the people I love will love me back. Good work (which is much different from hard work – to define work primarily in terms of one’s disinclination to do it strikes me as a good reason to think it isn’t the work for you) may be hard to find, or may become other in the course of one’s life. In facct, we have a folk psychology of ‘mid life crises’ that is about one’s work becoming meaningless. The one thing that seems most under control is having a full internal life – a life of meditation, daydreams, etc. Yet I can’t think of an element in contemporary American life that is given less value or room. That is because, I think, an internal life is not part of any sort of exchange system, and doesn’t really require recognition. Money and fame seem like the surface attributes of a successful life, which are both extremely other oriented and tug against an inner life.

72

Hugh Gino Neal 11.25.11 at 1:52 pm

So Germans tend to believe that forces beyond their control are strong influences in life’s outcomes. Let’s see, what is it in German history that might lend volk to diffuse responsibility for their actions …?

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chris 11.25.11 at 2:35 pm

It would also be interesting to slice it three ways: (1) external social forces vs. (2) hard work/free will/choices vs. (3) inborn, immutable genetic qualities.

Fine, but the thing (1) and (3) have in common is that since they’re not voluntary, they don’t respond to incentive structures directed at the individual. That’s why you’re not really losing explanatory power for the purposes of this question by collapsing them into “external causes”.

Also, I’m not sure you can really completely disentangle (2) and (3) anyway. Aren’t there known genetic predispositions to addiction, for example? So is developing an addiction a (bad) choice, or isn’t it?

Or, for that matter, (2) and (1). Who would choose to be athletes if they weren’t lionized by society? Far fewer, clearly. But choosing athleticism as a career goal is quite risky — I hesitate to condemn it outright as “bad” when it worked so well for e.g. Michael Jordan, but there’s lots of other people who try to become athletes but never make the big time and have to try to find something else at the last minute after devoting a lot of whatever time and resources they have to their failed attempt at an athletic career. If they made the same choice as Jordan, does that mean they chose well but were defeated by outside factors? Or Jordan chose poorly but succeeded anyway through talent and luck? Or that the right choice depends on what talent you have, and the failed athletes’ real problem is that they didn’t recognize soon enough that they aren’t talented enough to make it in the big time? (Surely the cultural drumbeat of “you can do anything if you work at it hard enough” has something to do with this… if you *can’t* become Jordan by working at it hard enough, then society lied to them and they believed it; how blameworthy is that, exactly?)

Even if talent is something which is undeserved and should be appropriated

Appropriated? Who suggested that? If you’re defining any tax rate greater than zero as “appropriation” then you *are* having a political argument… with the entire rest of the world.

Taxes are not a punishment and any rate less than 100% is not appropriation. And as long as the marginal tax rate is less than 100%, people with more pretax income will still have more posttax income so that the incentive to make more pretax income is not destroyed.

BTW, I’d like to know how to deserve more talent. And if I do manage to behave in a way such that I deserve more talent, will I get it? I doubt it. (Indeed, since much of a person’s talent allocation is determined before they could possibly have taken any voluntary action whatsoever, to allocate talent according to people’s deserts would require causality violation.) Economic Calvinism is just as much BS as the original. But I guess it’s the destiny of threads like this to have it brought up anyway…

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Neville Morley 11.25.11 at 3:09 pm

#72: that seems staggeringly trite. Firstly, because it implies that belief in an external locus of control automatically entails denial of all personal responsibility, which would be true only if one believes that external forces have 100% control (and not necessarily even then – mainstream Christianity believes in all-powerful god and complete personal responsibility for one’s actions); I’m equally unconvinced that belief in internal locus of control entails acceptance of full personal responsibility for everything. Secondly, because it’s such a short-term view of history – what of the various C19 German theories of the structures of society and economy, implying a belief that people’s lives are shaped at least in part by external forces?

That was just drive-by snark, wasn’t it? I’m not sure why I’m bothering to offer a serious response…

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john c. halasz 11.25.11 at 4:11 pm

@71:

“That is because, I think, an internal life is not part of any sort of exchange system, and doesn’t really require recognition.”

Oh, dear. Think again.

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roger 11.25.11 at 4:20 pm

I’ve thought and thought and still cannot sell or even give my daydreams or meditations to you, 75. In fact, that is pretty much impossible. I can give representations of them, or sell them, however. If you think it is representation all the way down, I’ll refute you by kicking a stone.

77

Jason 11.25.11 at 11:03 pm

@Michael: Thanks for referencing the excellent article by Claudia Strauss.

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John Quiggin 11.25.11 at 11:39 pm

Coming in kind of late, does anyone think that if they had been born more than 10 000 years ago (this is, I think, true of around half the people who have ever lived) that they would have succeeded in achieving a living standard above Paleolithic subsistence? That seems to answer the question pretty definitively.

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john c. halasz 11.26.11 at 2:56 am

@76:

No, roger, I don’t want to steal your in-f-able day-dreams from you. But I would assume that you know that even your most recondite day-dreams, insofar as they have any coherence, are motivated by a desire for recognition, and that engaging in private activity, such as, say, reading a novel, derives much of its “value” from “systems of social exchange”. O.K., back now to ma fool eener laif.

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Glen Tomkins 11.26.11 at 5:50 am

@78
Well, it only answers the question of material living conditions.

We manage quite well at having lives that are nasty, brutish and short in even the best neighborhoods right here in 2011 CE. Some of the difference between that kind of life and a happy life were no doubt out of the hands of indvidual choice in 10,000 BCE, but I don’t think it’s clear the proportion was lesser or greater than it is now. The more we depend on complicated material and social arrangements, the more those arrangements dictate outcomes. We add an artifical layer or two on top of all the natural orders of compulsion and limitation that bear on our lives.

We have democracy now, we have ordinary people making the choices, in a nation whose power has global reach, that you would think, from one point of view, can do anything. The most ordinary individual thus has limitless freedom of choice, theoretically. Except that no one person’s vote means anything. And movements to influence how enough people think and vote to matter somehow seem to not be viable within the established system. Only approaches like OWS, or what we’re seeing in Tahrir Square seem to hold any prospect of re-establsihing any human control over events. But, of course, that approach risks the speedy return to material conditions similar to 10,000 BCE. And fear of that risk would seem to be the key factor in creating an unwillingness on the part of the majority to actually exercise any power and choice.

The risk of revolution is not an argument to leave Tahrir or to quit occupying Wall Street. But I think there remains the point that to have that shot at actual choice, at restoring any human control to our governments and economies, we have to go to the brink and risk a massive deleveraging of the sort of freedom our material prosperity and social progress grants. Again, this is not an argument against action, since I would put the odds on the elitist revolutionaries at the ECB pushing us over the cliff into 10,000 BCE as much higher than any popular revolutionaries doing that. My point is that I suspect that we have always lived on that brink, and that 12,000 years hasn’t changed that balance between just going with the flow and hoping that the system already in place will continue to carry us, and deciding that, no, the system is broken, and we have to swim against its tide or it will carry us over the cliff.

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roger 11.26.11 at 10:29 am

John, I think the total penetration of recognition into the inner life is, in the Western culture, something that arose as a result of the sort of accidental creation of a youth culture. When the stem-household pattern broke apart in the 16th century in Western Europe, I think it unleashed a certain cultural pattern in which, on the one hand, young men were liberated from the responsibility of raising a family within a paternal household run by an older male, while at the same time burdening them with the responsibility to set up households on their own. I think the competition for recognition gradually expanded over the age groups and sexes, but, in fact, I still think that mostly, people have inner lives that may produce representations that are intended to be exchanged, or for which they expect recognition, but which are certainly separate from that later moment. Granted, we now live in cultures where the circumstances of a young twenty something male just out of college has become assumed as the model self, the self-made man (a contradiction in terms that points to the genesis of the myth as related to age), or the way we really are, in the narratives of economists, policy makers and pundits, but I think that this is a very blind way of looking at the world, projecting as an unchanging state of affairs a set of rather unique circumstances that quickly change in the life span, even as that model – set going in the socius – now pursues everyone up until the time they die.

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TommyDeelite 11.26.11 at 11:47 pm

Reading this has made me realize that conservative hatred of ‘white guilt’ is as it pertains to evaluation–which they see as devaluation–of self. When you’ve made a comfy headspace of overvaluing yourself, that someone would do otherwise is anathema.

83

cripes 11.28.11 at 1:41 am

Considering the question of self agency and external controls is an interesting and fruitful exercise in theory and for self development and understanding.

However, I think the most relevant arena this plays out is in our social-economic sphere, with a great assist from a cultural-media complex overpopulated by bloviating blowhards like Newt Gingrich, leaves us with an essential dilemma: how do these apparently opposing and exclusive world views affect the health of our society?

Of course, self agency and external controls both play a role in our individual “outcomes” (what a despicable term, redolent of business and social service metrics fetishists).

Let me offer an example of a man I know, senior vice president at Bank of America, convinced that his own brilliance is solely responsible for his “success,” who rails against the low-income mortgagees who crashed the economy because of their lack of “personal responsibility,” continually points to the success of the rare homeless person (handing out copies of the loathsome “Pursuit of Happyness), is pleased with Bloomberg’s unprecedented and criminal stop and frisk’s of 600,000 non-white youths in NYC, claiming it’s not racism, it’s “only” because they’re low-income(!), which makes it OK (he’s also black). Has a disabled sister that has lived her entire life in the bottom 5% and offers her nothing but pompous lectures on her “personal responsibility.”

In short, an utterly despicable corporate cog, who takes full advantage of the moral absolution he thinks this self-made man delusion confers upon him, and which is mostly dependent on his relentless disparagement of those less affluent. Not less accomplished, not less generous, kind, just, righteous, moral or simply human, but affluent.

This is the kind of…person…that emerges from the foul dogma of Hayek and Rand and Gingrich and Greenspan, et al.

84

Watson Ladd 11.28.11 at 1:55 am

@78&80: The crucial question isn’t “does my wealth depend on society?” but “does my wealth as opposed to the fortune of others born in society depend on society?”. Clearly the world we live in now rewards rare skills much more then common ones. What does an engineer in the neolithic do? It is pretty clear that circumstances affect life chances, but as we equalize circumstances that will become less and less true. Furthermore, we also pick which talents to develop and how to employ them. The prospect of filthy lucre does play a role here: who would be a graduate student if not for the possibility of tenure and the modest stipend that replaces an oath of poverty?

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cripes 11.28.11 at 2:14 am

In the previous post, please replace “person” with “monster.”

There is another area in which the interaction between advocates of the personal choice brigade and the externality folks plays out.

Most of social service, drug treatment and corrections is predicated on the idea that you fix a deficient individual, to the exclusion of creating healthy environment; health, housing, education and meaningful “opportunity” (another loaded concept).

While I’m all for helping people towards self actualization, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum, or especially well when punitive stimulus is applied.
And we all know how well fixing the brains of the morally deficient has worked.

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Watson Ladd 11.28.11 at 2:34 am

cripes, punishment is morally deserved because of the nature of moral transgressions. Was prison morally refractory and thus good then the innocent would deserve it more then the guilty.

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kidneystones 11.28.11 at 2:46 am

I enjoyed the poll. The responses of different groups about cultural superiority are interesting. (p.7) The fact that the Germany spent a large part of the second half of the preceding century either under some form of totalitarianism or under the supervision of external authorities may explain, in part, why so many Germans believe that their lives are shaped by forces outside their control. The breakdowns along age and educational lines provide plenty of fodder for discusssion. All in all a good read. Thanks for the link.

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piglet 11.29.11 at 1:51 am

84: “who would be a graduate student if not for the possibility of tenure and the modest stipend that replaces an oath of poverty?”

Am I missing the irony? Of course, graduate students tend to be rather poor as a group, winning tenure is hardly more likely for a PhD than a win in the lottery and also, tenured professors aren’t that well paid, certainly not compared to the effort and the long hours they are expected to put in. I’m not sure what your point about “rare skills” was supposed to prove Watson. Grad students as a group may tends to think they are in control but actually prove the opposite. And similarly, there are many more talented and able musicians, writers, film-makers, artists, than are successful.

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Watson Ladd 11.29.11 at 2:28 am

piglet, the existence of talent lotteries shows that rare and large rewards motivate people to a very large extent. Your argument is that people aren’t motivated by the dream of being successful to develop particular skills. While a tenured professor might be underpaid compared to some professions, its not something that people would do for free. The possibility of that motivates people to try. As for the rewarding of rare skills, most people are capable of learning the skills used in the neolithic. That’s not the case for higher mathematics or science: some very smart and intelligent people struggle in calculus because of the level of quantification and abstraction involved.

So in the neolithic world where everyone can do everything we would expect a broadly similar patter of wealth. Once we get to a world where some jobs have to be done by very particular people, that is going to change. A doctor who can save your life commands a higher fee then one who will ineffectively prescribe herbs that will do nothing if you are lucky.

Someone who chooses to be an artist or an athlete is clearly aware that they are gambling on a very rare event. Even if their ultimate success is beyond their control after that, they are still responsible for having made that gamble instead of picking a more certain path. So the choices of what skills we will invest in are motivated by reward and are not simply the result of intrinsic talent. A baby does not wake up with a determinant set of skills.

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