Saturday, August 20, 2011

Who believes in the power of hard work?

Advances in gene sequencing and brain scanning technologies are continually threatening the human notion of free will, and the smart money appears to be on us coming to the uncomfortable realization that we have a lot less control over our actions, behaviors, and abilities than we think we do, sooner rather than later.

That said, it's encouraging to find that over two-thirds of Americans, when questioned on what it takes to get ahead, assert that hard work is more important than are lucky circumstances or getting help from others. At the individual level, the belief in the efficacy of personal effort is a benefit, a beneficent lie to the extent that it is overemphasized. What good does it do for someone of limited ability and prospects to languish in self-pity or resentment, resigning himself to a dismal, effortless existence because he knows the game is fixed, and so what's the point in trying?

There are inherent dangers in believing effort is everything, especially for those who have won life's lottery. If someone of nearly limitless potential decides to coast on his early accomplishments, having attained a bachelor's degree from State U and currently making $80,000 a year in a comfortable job, reasoning that "Hey, I'm doing better than most people, and that's pretty good, right?", the world is the poorer for it. More pithily, if accomplishments are exclusively the products of personal effort, the venerable words from Luke--that "from everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked"--lose much of their meaning.

There is also the problem of people having unrealistic expectations about success, the idea that any child is capable of becoming an astronaut or the future president of the US, as NCLB illustrates. But a more pressing concern to me seems to be the sense of entitlement that has infected Western civilization, the sense that everyone deserves a prestigious, fun existence and lots of material accouterments to accompany it without having to do much of anything to earn them.

The declaration that two-in-three Americans believe hard work is paramount in getting ahead in life comes from a GSS question that reads "Some people say that people get ahead by their own hard work; others say that lucky breaks of help from other people are more important. Which do you think is most important?" The three possible answers are "hard work", "both equally", and "luck or help". It's a question that is posed to a huge swath of participants, so sample sizes are large across the board. The following table shows a self-determination index (SDI) score, computed by taking the percentage of respondents who say hard work is more important and subtracting from it the percentage of respondents who say "luck or help" is more important. For contemporary relevance, all responses are from 2000 onward:


Native Americans

Really smarts
Pretty smarts
Pretty Dumbs
Real Dumbs

Political orientation

Partisan affiliation



US native

Uncertain believer
Firm believer
Educational attainment

Less than high school
High school grad
Some college
Bachelor's degree
Post-secondary work

The largest differences are racial, political, and theological. Intelligence, educational attainment (though the academic world's emphasis on the powerlessness of the individual and the heavy influence of societal forces beyond the individual's control shouldn't be discounted in the observation that those with less education put more emphasis on the value of hard work than those with more education do), sex, age, and whether or not you were born in the country do not factor in much.

I'm not surprised to find that blacks, many of whom are enmeshed in the idea that white society is forever holding them down, and Asians, who despite doing well, seem strangely fascinated by luck or the lack thereof, take a more cynical view of the value of hard work than whites do. That Hispanics and Native Americans actually believe in the importance of effort a little more than whites do is more unexpected. To offer an explanation after the fact, Amerindians have lower levels of self-esteem and are less braggadocios than blacks and whites are, so perhaps they're more willing to accept the fact that while hard work is helpful, they don't always possess the will to work very hard themselves.

The political shake out is predictable. Liberals and Democrats are more inclined towards the idea that people are a product of societal forces beyond their control and consequently there is a need for a powerful central government to right societal wrongs and redistribute wealth in an equitable manner. Conservatives and Republicans are closer to the Ron Paul message of individual liberty and personal responsibility, viewing government as a nefarious force that punishes the innocent and rewards the guilty.

Somewhat ironically, those who believe in God are more likely to feel that it's up to oneself to make it in the world, even as they pray for blessings and assistance from above, while atheists and agnostics feel that a person has relatively little control over his circumstances in life.

Parenthetically, the slight increase in the belief in hard work among the young tracks with the gentle trend over the four decades that the GSS has asked the question for people to increasingly respond that hard work more than luck is more important in determining whether or not a person gets ahead in life.

GSS variables used: GETAHEAD(1-3), YEAR(2000-2010), SEX, RACECEN1(1)(2)(3)(4-10)(15-16), GOD(1)(2)(3-5)(6), POLVIEWS(1-2)(3-5)(6-7), PARTYID(0-1)(2-4)(5-6), BORN, WORDSUM(see *), EDUC(0-11)(12)(13-15)(16-17)(18-20)

* Respondents are broken up into five categories; Really Smarts (wordsum score of 9-10, comprising 13% of the population), Pretty Smarts (7-8, 26%), Normals (6, 22%), Pretty Dumbs (4-5, 27%), and Real Dumbs (0-3, 12%)


Jokah Macpherson said...

When it really comes down to it, I suspect that "hard work" is beyond a person's control as well - i.e. there is no ghost in the machine to urge a person to study harder but rather they are left with whatever their genes and environment have provided them.

This should put to rest the common atheist argument that the faithful are simply wardens of God's welfare state, though.

sykes.1 said...

So, conservatism, belief in God and limited education produce positive outlooks and behaviors.

And liberalism, atheism and higher education produce negative outlooks and behaviors.

Someone out there is laughing at us.

Jehu said...

If you're willing to work twice as hard, you can generally about equal the performance of someone with a standard deviation more aptitude for a task. That ratio---about a doubling per standard deviation, applies in most areas I've seen. So does this mean I believe in the power of hard work?

Anonymous said...

Determinism and free will are perfectly compatible. Gene studies and advances in psychology are getting us closer to the proximal causes of human behavior, but we've known since Newton's time that we are physical beings that act according to physical laws.

Free will exists. Go ahead, lift your right arm...or don't. It's your choice. The fact that your decision was, in theory, predictable does not in any way negate that fact that you made a free choice.

Ed Tom Kowalsky said...

But if you chose to lift your arm was it really a choice or could you, in reality, not have "chosen" otherwise? A hardcore determinist would argue that every "chosen" action is an illusory expression of so-called free will. I'm not sure I agree with them, but this is what they'd argue.

Anonymous said...

"So, conservatism, belief in God and limited education produce positive outlooks and behaviors."

Nah, they just correlate. They may have a common cause, genes.

JI said...

I think hard work and "getting ahead" are relative. For example, to an Asian, hard work is taken for granted and "getting ahead" might mean great wealth. To a hispanic, on the other hand, hard work might be viewed as something rather extraordinary and getting ahead might just mean getting the car paid off. So when asked the question in the survey, the hispanic might feel that, with enough hard work, the car can easily be paid off. The Asian, though, is already working hard and doesn't see himself getting those riches or that high professional esteem he associates with getting ahead.

Anonymous said...

it's encouraging to find that over two-thirds of Americans, when questioned on what it takes to get ahead, assert that hard work is more important than are lucky circumstances or getting help from others.

That's the American civic religion at work. That's the answer everyone is supposed to give.

It's wrong though. In practice knowing the right people is a much bigger asset than working hard. Look at the US Congress for proof.

Anonymous said...

the smart money appears to be on us coming to the uncomfortable realization that we have a lot less control over our actions, behaviors, and abilities than we think we do, sooner rather than later.

That's a 50/50 possibility. In fact some aspects of our mental makeup seem to be "hardwired", and others to be "softwired". Read up on the fascinating literature about "neural plasticity". To a large extent, you can make yourself be what you want to be.

Anonymous said...

I just want to comment this.

I really like reading your blog from time to time. This is a blog I check in and read every couple weeks, and just read down until the last time I read it. Plus, I read some of the more important things I don't remember too well.

Its a good blog, keep it up. Plenty of useful information I don't get from other sources.