Finally! An Ig Nobel Prize for us averages

Finally! An Ig Nobel Prize for us averages
Finally! An Ig Nobel Prize for us averages

This year’s Ig Nobel Prize in economics went on Thursday to three researchers who mathematically show how the most successful people in a society are often the luckiest, rather than the most talented. In fact, the most talented are rarely the most successful, according to the researchers.

So good news for us averages. We can both be very successful – if we’re lucky, while not having to look up to the super rich as some overly intelligent race. They could have been us!

The research definitely meets the criteria of the Ig Nobel Prize: first it makes you laugh, then it makes you think. Because the richest are not the smartest is of course a problem for a society that claims to reward talent.

If you get a job in a coveted agency, it may be because your last name starts with a letter early in the alphabet.

The three researchers in Catania, Italy, one active in the Department of Economics (Biondo) and two in the Department of Physics and Astronomy (Pluchino and Rapisarda), ask how to explain that traits such as talent and endurance in the population are normally distributed around a mean while wealth is extremely unevenly distributed with a long tail of poor and middle rich and a very large share concentrated in a few extremely rich. Had we lived in a meritocratic society that rewarded talent fairly, we would have seen a large share of wealth in the middle and then an extremely small share of wealth at the ends of the distribution. Many people have around 100 in IQ, but no one has 1000 or 10000. The same applies to effort. Many work 40 hours a week, but no one works thousands of hours. Today, instead, the gaps are growing and 26 people own as much as the poorest half of the world’s population.

Choose anyone as boss

Their model building takes place in the wake of a lot of research on the labor market as guided by prejudice or chance. For example, people with fancy surnames often hold managerial positions. Or your position on the labor market may depend on the month you were born in. If your academic work is judged to be more outstanding, it may be because you have an extra letter between your first and last name. And whether you get a job in a coveted agency may depend on your last name starting with a letter early in the alphabet. Yes, the same researcher actually has a previous Ig Nobel Prize for showing that organizations that select managers completely at random are more effective than those that select by merit.

Ig Nobel Prize

The Ig Nobel Prize is a parody of the Nobel Prize, since 1991 awarded annually at Harvard University. The Ig Nobel Prize is awarded in ten categories for deeds that “first make people laugh and then make them think.” The Ig Nobel Prize is organized by the scientific humor journal Annals of Improbable Research.


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The researchers build a model with a number of individuals of normally distributed talent who all start with no assets, throw in lucky and unlucky events every six months for 40 working years and see what happens. Those with more talent are supposed to be able to extract more reward from luck events. The result is a distribution that more closely resembles the world’s real asset distribution. And since the normally gifted are so many, the probability is also high that those with the greatest assets are not the most gifted. The most successful instead have a slightly above-average talent. They have simply been lucky – being in the right place at the right time.

Merit does not necessarily bring new success

The researchers believe that, for example, the universities’ focus on “excellence” – giving large contributions to highly successful researchers – is completely misdirected. In a model that takes into account that revolutionary discoveries can be made at any point in a career, it is instead significantly more efficient to give smaller sums to several researchers. We simply do not have certain selection criteria for success, but post-rationalize past successes to be about talent even though they may just as well be due to luck and thus do not predict new research breakthroughs.

A more equal distribution of education and resources that is not based on previous merits, therefore, seems to both benefit the meritocracy and create a diversity of ideas and perspectives.

What conclusions can we then draw as a society from this? Raising the general level of education gives talented people greater success in the researchers’ model. Even a targeted elite effort to raise the education of the most talented gives greater dividends to the talented, while at the same time the result becomes more random and income differences increase. The real meritocracy also increases as we move towards a society with more luck events, that is, more of an i-country scenario where we have a more stimulating environment with more opportunities for success.

Elite investments do not favor meritocracy

A more equal distribution of education and resources that are not based on previous merits, therefore, seems to both benefit the meritocracy and create a diversity of ideas and perspectives in research that have proven to lead to innovations, say the Ig Nobel Prize winners.

The supposedly meritocratic idea of ​​distributing resources according to already achieved merits, ironically, does not lead to more meritocracy. Instead, it is more developed countries’ broad education systems and more generous postgraduate programs that seem to do the real work for the meritocracy.


The article is in Swedish

Tags: Finally Nobel Prize averages

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