The kind of abstract cognitive pursuits that occupy us in the modern industrialized world are comparatively recent developments. For the vast majority of human history, life has been about simple survival. Both our minds and our bodies are adapted to that task – to make sure that we don't freeze or starve to death, to avoid things trying to kill us, and to make choices that promote our self-interest. That you are here today as the culmination of a million years of human evolution is a good indication that your brain is hard wired for survival.

In a complex world in which many of us are lucky enough to avoid worrying about survival on a daily basis, we have adapted our cognitive abilities to contemplate more abstract concepts. We're capable of understanding things like philosophy, religion, politics, and relationships. But old habits die hard, so to speak. Our minds retain a nagging tendency to distort or manipulate information in ways that enhance our well being, which is a fancy way of saying your brain wants you to feel better about yourself.

Now. Consider this:

I won't dissect this person's statement, which is almost certainly either selective with the truth or exaggerated. That's another story (and ably handled in detail here). What we see is a very common perceptual bias in action: the "just world" phenomenon, a bias of attribution.
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If I am a success, my brain wants me to believe that I have succeeded because I am good – talented, hard working, and so on. The converse is that people who do not succeed must be lazy, talentless, or prone to making bad decisions. It's a basic victim-blaming premise. A common example used with this bias is rape. If we blame the victim, it makes us feel safer. Rather than confronting the scary reality that it could happen to you at random, we believe that if we avoid the behaviors of the previous victims then we will remain safe.

Thus the overly simplistic worldview we see on display in the above photo. We start with our brain's desire to bolster our self-image – You're a big success, Timmy! You've earned all that you have! – and end with a worldview that requires us to assign the same level of responsibility to others. If we admit that external factors such as chance or social class influence others' outcomes, then we would be admitting that the same things might have benefited us. But of course I didn't just "get lucky"…I earned all of this. So don't you whiners go blaming bad luck or forces beyond your control if you're not happy. You've clearly made a lot of bad decisions, the same kind that I'm smart enough to avoid.

It all makes sense now.


  • I think the part of this specific picture that points out where he got lucky is where he remarks about how much he works, and then mentions that scholarships pay for 90% of his tuition. Apparently, people cannot complain about extremely expensive college tuition because this guy got scholarships. Brilliant.

  • I got scholarships for my BA and MA as well.

    It made me more grateful than ever to have grown up in a home where one bread-winner was a Federal employee who could afford to send me to fancy schmancy summer camps and SAT prep programs, and to do graduate school at a state university that could afford to throw some money at my sorry ass due to tax dollars from others.

    No person is an island. Some British dude I had to read once said that.

  • Yet another person who has nothing handed to them that goes to a moderately priced state college thats subsidized by taxpayers. I wonder if their scholarships are taxpayer subsidized as well.

  • ConcernedCitizen says:

    For the sake of argument I'm going to ignore the link that blows this little picture apart and pretend that this person is real and that everything they wrote is accurate and truthful.

    THIS is why we are doomed. Ed, you say this is an example of the "just world" cognitive bias. I agree. But I can't help but wonder: how much of this is a basic psychological misrepresentation of reality and how much is "American Dream" induced psychosis? I don't know enough about other countries for a sound comparison, but I'd bet we outshine all of them when it comes to our idolatry of the Self Made Man.

    As insane as it sounds, there are people – swaths of them – who believe America is the embodiment of a perfect economic meritocracy. They believe if you are poor you are stupid and/or lazy and if you are rich you earned every cent you made through individual perseverance. There are people – whole constituencies of them – who identify with and admire CEOs and hedge fund managers as if they're suffering from some kind of financial Stockholm Syndrome. "They have enormous reserves of capital and wield proportional political influence? Good on 'em!"

    So where does that leave us? It leaves us with a grand impediment to populist movements. Like the Solvent and Self Made Student above, many will continue to ignore income disparity and vote in the best interest of our mythical job creators like the good little "Precariat" (Citigroup's definition of the 99%) that they are.

    We are doomed.

  • @Concerned: the idolatry of the "Self Made Man" is contagious. Australia has caught it, it goes under the guise of "the aspirational society".

  • The sign could also just read "I am white."

    Stole that from a friend of a friend's facebook post on the same photo.

  • I went to a state school on a full ride due to being a National Merit Scholar. I went to law school completely on loans because with six figures of tuition and living expenses for three years, there's not much else you can do if your parents don't have any money. I don't take credit or blame for either situation; I lived in a safe white suburb and was encouraged to learn, so I did well on a test that got me a scholarship, but the only way for me to get out of the lower middle class was to incur a lot of debt. (Disclosure: still in the lower middle class, barely hanging on! This debt sucks!) Having been on both ends of privilege and not-privilege, I like to think I have some understanding of how accidents of birth are more influential than we'd like to think.

  • The guy's got battered worker syndrome, bad. Seriously though, these people are the biggest fucking morons of our age. The Amazing Atheist, whom I usually despise(not because he's an atheist but because he's a self-important loudmouth with a webcam), put these people in their place quite handily. "AH BUST MY ASS AND I DON'T HAVE NOTHIN'!!!" Yeah, you're a fucking moron then. What kind of retard is proud that they work more hours for less pay?

    And this "I don't blame others" bullshit is equally moronic. First of all, he's a college senior, so what's he going to say when he graduates and finds there are no jobs in his fields? Let me guess…blame the welfare queens, the libruls, the government, Obama, the illegal immigrants, the taxes, etc. That's why I can't take these "personal responsibility types" seriously; whenever they fail, it's always someone else's fault.

    Steinbeck said it best: "Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires."

  • Middle Seaman says:

    Rich people work hard and are very smart; poor people are lazy and stupid.

    How many times have we heard that one?

  • Read the link, very informative and well written. It takes apart, with, you know, real numbers and shit, the reality of 'putting yourself through school'. When I was in school 30 years ago I knew kids who were doing this, I also knew kids who were taking the insanely low interest rate loans and investing it and making money at it. YOu can do that when you can get a college loan for 1%. They took whatever maximum they could get and invested whatever they didn't need. Looking back it was pretty smart.
    Conversely, I have a niece who went to a private university and got no help from her parents, must have paid for the entire thing with loans, got a Social Work degree and now has a 100K in debt with 8% interest. I'd call that a mortgage but you can get a better interest rate with a home loan.
    If you get 90% of your tuition paid, stop right there. You've lost your point.

  • So when College Boy has put in 15 years in a company then gets a notice that he is going to get laid off in two weeks because the boss decides to offshore the whole operation can we assume that it is his fault? That he was a lazy asshole who got what he deserved? What if you have children by then, College Boy? How are you going to feel when they are eating Kraft Mac-n-Cheese 3 times a week because you can't find a job that pays even half as much as your old one? I'm sure you will take a good, long hard look in the mirror and blame yourself. Right?
    You're still wet behind the ears, kid. You don't know shit.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    "I am NOT the 99%, and whether or not you are is your decision."

    'And I have decided to be a useful fucking idiot' for the 1%!'

    Despite everything I wrote which proves I'm one of you, I refuse to be anywhere you stinky DFH's.

    I am a dumbass!
    Now I gotta hope this decision pays off…
    Until then, BJ, Mister? *


  • This is something that has been making me crazy – to the point of rage and bad words – for a couple of weeks now (and, in truth, for longer than that, but I hadn't given voice to it until recently).

    Look, I am one of the lucky ones. My husband and I are both Master's degreed professionals, we both have good jobs we like (and that are relatively stable). We have everything we need and damned near everything we want. We can afford to own a home and two cars, we can go out to eat and can take nice vacations, we have clothes and shoes and healthcare. If I were anyone else, I'd be uppity and arrogant about that, because I was born white trash, complete with the trailer park.

    I am NOT anyone else, though, and I recognize two important things: one, I did NOT get to where I am by sheer will and tenacity. Sure, a lot of what I have I got because I did "all the right things," but I could just as easily have been exactly like my parents; undereducated, poor, and dependent. Two; I realize that despite all we have, we are still one layoff and bad diagnosis away from losing ALL of it. I have NO illusions of security, and I realize how obscenely easy it would be to find myself in a VERY different life than the one I enjoy now.

    I take nothing for granted. I judge no one for their circumstances. I'm smart enough to realize that I am a 99%, and I'm doing everything I can to make everyone else realize that they are, too.

  • That you are here today as the culmination of a million years of human evolution is a good indication that your brain is hard wired for survival.

    I don't know Ed, isn't this a sort of anthropic-principle-flavored just world bias too? I mean, all those other species are just as hard-wired for survival as we are, and most of them haven't, in fact, survived. And the ones that have were merely lucky enough to not have their ecological niche accidentally erased over the eons. For all the marks that ours has been leaving on the place, we haven't been around very long at all, and all signs are likely we're going to be lucky to last a tenth as long on the planet as such comically maladapted species like the megatherium and other weird pleistocene beasties.

    Now bacteria, those persistent little motherfuckers are hardwired for survival.


    But yeah, not to detract from your point, by any means. Fuck these useless privileged tools anyway. Hard work and gumption is great and all, and maybe it isn't even always a self-validating illusion, but it clearly isn't enough.

  • Two of the most important lessons parents can teach their kids are:
    1) Whatever you do, you should try to do well
    2) Life's not fair

    The picture in your article shows the result when you fail to teach #2, and the person is lucky.
    (But, seriously, teaching #2 without #1 is equally problematic.)

  • I was an avid skydiver for many years and you would see this phenomenon manifest itself in a very pronounced fashion whenever a skydiver would be hurt or killed while skydiving. Even if the person was one of the icons of the sport, hugely experienced with tens of thousands of jumps, you'd see their peers turn on them. This led to the comical spectacle of beginning skydivers with tens of jumps Monday-morning quarterbacking the deceased, talking about what a "dumb ass" he'd been and how they'd never make the same mistakes.

    This discomfort with the realization that even the most gifted could be killed by a misalignment of random factors led to anyone who had been injured or killed being essentially ostracized and demonized post-facto. They were a dumb ass. We're not like that. It's all good.

    I'm willing to bet it's the same in any high-risk sport.

  • Ah, good ol' fashioned "It benefits me therefore it's good" bias. I'd almost forgotten what it smelled like.

    "90% of my tuition was paid for by other people (probably the government I despise)! I've never been handed anything!"

  • Monkey Business says:

    If you ever get the chance to talk to someone that's very successful, like a CEO or something similar, see what their thoughts are the role that luck has played in them getting to where they are.

    No one likes to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, the key component to success is luck.

  • But…but…I saw this post from my Libertarian sister-in-law so it must be true.

    Of course she and my brother both attended a state school and worked every summer and while they were at school so it must be possible to BOOTSTRAPS(TM) yourself.

    Then again this university has an estimated yearly cost of ~26k and a current tuition of 10,385. When they were in school the tuition was 1,314. Of course this makes sense because average salaries and the minimum wage have increased 8 fold in the intervening years, rent/housing expenses and food/miscelaneous expenses have all remained constant, and we all of flying cars and robot housekeepers.

    Really…I can't imagine what's wrong with all these people who are in debt.

  • Wow couldn't agree more with the statement in the photo.

    It is pure entertainment to read this blog and the comments posted in response. You guys give each other the blog equivalent of a hand job and think it is intercourse. But your all so damn witty. It's gold i tell you!

  • As far as I can tell, the not-really-1-percenters (math doesn't care what you want, bootstrapper) are most offended by the act of complaining itself. "Sure, I'm poor and getting poorer while working 100 a week for minimum wage and no benefits and no vacation in 8 years, but at least I don't complaint about it!"

    Um, yes, that's just like a victory. Good for you.

  • I can see where the author of the screed in the photo (and, I guess, Dookie) are coming from. There are people who bust their asses and make smart decisions and act like grown-ups from Day One, and they absolutely deserve credit for doing so. That's a hard way to live, and those who manage to do it are justifiably proud to have done so. So for anyone–especially a stranger–to come along and say "Wow, you got lucky" is instinctively read as "All your hard work and sacrifice meant nothing–you're just a lottery winner," which engenders a perfectly understandable "Fuck you."

    But "hard work" and "luck" are not mutually exclusive elements to achieving success. On the contrary, they're both essential. But when people are Smart, Hard Working, and Talented, they don't want to hear that there's a fourth essential component: Luck. The luck can be great (rich parents, being the college roommate of Bill Gates), or small (an interview on a day when you weren't getting over the flu), but it's there. The fact that it's out of our hands and as random as the roll of a roulette wheel is aggravating to everyone, but especially to those who want to think (as we all do) that their fate is entirely in their control. But it isn't. Not entirely.

    Machiavelli nails this in THE PRINCE: You can be the smartest, most crafty, devious, talented, beloved-and-feared motherfucker ever, but if you have bad luck, you're toast. That doesn't obviate the need to do everything in your power to succeed. On the contrary, hard work and persistence can and often does overcome the need for *too much* good luck.

    The need for luck can be minimized, but it can never be entirely eliminated. To borrow the idiom, you can be 99% responsible for your success, but that nasty little 1% is out there, and the successful are the ones who have it. (And hence *are* the 1%, really.)

    There's a terror in the notion that people like the screed's author can do everything right, and still fail. And the response to that unfairness is often displaced on the people who point this unpleasant fact out.

    All the 99% movement is doing is pointing out that the game is ginned too much in favor of the house–that what they want is a system in which *more* people can achieve success by hard work and talent and persistence. They're not arguing that everyone, regardless of merit, deserves a ticket into the Magic Kingdom.

    So if you're like this soon-to-be graduate, then good for you. Keep doing what you're doing, and you'll probably–but only *probably* succeed. But if you fail, and life has a way of making that happen (parent suddenly needs chemo, birth control fails, car accident robs you of the ability to function at full potential), please note that there will be those around you in the discard heap who are *exactly* like you–smart, talented, hard-working. And if you make it, it's just good manners/taste to show some sympathy for those who did exactly what you did, and got dicked over by a job market in which there are three equally outstanding candidates for one entry-level job.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Thank you for taking a moment away from your valuable Conservative circle-jerk time on the inter-tubes, and gracing us with your presence.

    And coming from you, thanks for the 'witty' compliment.
    The question is, which one are you:

    Oh, and before I forget, it should be 'you're,' not "your," you illiterate dumbass!

  • I am lucky.

    I was born with great parents who gave me a usable brain, a decent work ethic, and the desire and ability to help me become the best I could be.

    I have had many people in my life who decided that helping others achieve was a great achievement in and of itself. These people went out of there way to help my life be better.

    I grew up before the destruction of the commons that started with Reagan and is still going strong today.

    I have a good life, but that is because I am standing on the shoulders of giants. Iceberg giants, 90% of whose contributions are below the surface, but giants nevertheless.

    I expect everyone should have similar advantages, that's how it is supposed to work, but not how it does work. Until it does I am 53 of 99

  • (Thinks that J. Dryden's comment and my prior one say, essentially, the same thing. And I look forward to the day when I can deliver, to my own son, the more comprehensive response.)

    Scratch that

    I didn't write the more comprehensive response, because I'm not that articulate.

    I am, however, blessed with some extraordinary luck, in addition to contributing an awful lot of hard work and responsibility.

  • Great post, the definition of which is one that advances my thinking on a fundamental subject. I'd long thought the failure of conservatives (using the word in the popular sense), some of whom are well-educated, articulate and often in some ways brilliant, etc. etc., is a failure of moral imagination ("there but for fortune…"), an inability to empathize with those less fortunate, to really imagine what it might be like to have been raised by an unwed, crack-addicted mother in misery and squalor, for example, and how hard to rise above that for the kids. But Ed demonstrates that that's not it: it's having larded one's achieved status onto one's self esteem. If my status is confounded with my self-esteem, then all reasoning ends, for NO ONE can deprive me of that, goddammit. I'll rationalize eternally rather than compromise THAT. Usually there's been a lifetime of identification of status (and attendant accomplishments) with self-esteem, so separating them is well-nigh impossible with many conservatives and libertarians; and once they go defensive on you you'll never reach them. J. Dryden and others here are totally right that acknowledging hard work, self-discipline AND luck as necessary to success (of any kind) is a very difficult sell. It takes maturity to understand this. By contrast there always seems to be something unfinished, childish about the so-called conservative mind set, though to draw the connection would take more time than I want to here.

  • Darby Witherspoon says:

    Sorry, but unless you spend your time doing things like ordering Nigerian 'kill-n-go squads' to protect your oil pipeline from the villagers living under it your one of the 99%, objectivist or not.

    Yuppies don't front: your in the 99…

  • Quote on a message board recently: "I'm not in the top 1% because of choices I made in life."

    Most of this country is getting fucked in the ass, no lube, and we are supposed to enjoy the experience.

  • @ Hazy Davy: To quote Tom Lehrer: "Plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize! Only remember please to call it first 'research.'" Which is to say, consider my comment a very lengthy 'bump.'

  • I can't remember what book I read this in (or maybe it was a magazine essay), but it was written by some cranky leftist or other who had done some teaching (high school college prep? maybe college?) at some point. It was maybe 15-20 years ago.

    What the author had found in dealing with students, expecially at somewhat exclusive schools, was that one, they had little idea of what life was like for less-privileged people, and two, that they simply had NO IDEA where their seeming "rewards for hard work" had come from. (If I remember correctly, the students in question were mostly middle-class, from a "blue state" area with higher wages and standards of living – I think it was either a "good" public school or good state school kind of setting he was talking about.)

    So anyway, most of the kids he was teaching had parents who were doing okay, and they just assumed this was because they "worked hard". It had literally never occured to them – nor ever been pointed out to them by anyone – that their parents' paychecks might have been raised by labor and wage laws, or that they might be subsidized by taxpayer money (whether directly as civil servants, or as indirect recipients of research grants to their employer, or because the business was dependent on government contracts, or sold to othes whose income came from the gov't, or whatever). It also just never crossed their minds that they benefited all day, every day, from public amenities, or that they were kept safe by government regulations, or that the (at that time, booming) economy was enabled by the government. If they worked while in school, it never occured to them why they made at least minimum wage (rather than a whole lot less), or why they were in school and not working 40 hours a week – or, for that matter, why there were such things as weekends and sick leave for working people. Nor did they ever wonder about where all the things they owned were made, or how, or by whom. There was just a total, absolute absense of any sort of awarenss of where any of it all CAME from, or how, or why. It was like they thought the world was just a level playing field, naturally made that way, and they/their families had just been successful all themselves by "working hard".

    That sign, true or not, reminded me of that book or essay…wish I could remember who wrote it.

  • @Ellie: The reason for all of that is because (1) they never had to work at a suck job making minimum wage or barely above while paying their bills with the money they earned (I was a pretty self-righteous libertarian myself until I found myself in that exact scenario) and (2) they either don't learn the relevant history in school or they don't pay attention when they are supposed to be learning it.

  • Ya know the most awesome thing about recently being hired for a job that saved me from absolute poverty? Realizing as business gets slow at the end of the year that I am gonna be the first one let go if they find a need to slim things up. You know the second most awesome thing about being in this position? Sucking up daily to absolute moronic relatives and buddies of the boss because I don't dare lose this job. I don't know what kinda percentage I am, but I sure as hell don't like the number I've drawn. The American Dream is the new Opiate of the People.

  • Can't read the link–when I try to continue reading I get a 404 error. But this guy certainly isn't part of the 53% that pays income taxes if he's going to college and making minimum wage.

  • greennotGreen says:

    The word "smart" has been used seven times in comments so far. Being "smart" is a kind of luck, too. Luck of the genetic draw, luck that nothing bad happened to mom during pregnancy, luck that you didn't get hit in the head by a baseball in Little League, leaving you with brain damage. Everybody isn't intellectually gifted. But do we want to live in a society where honest, hard-working people either barely scrape by or can't make it at all because they aren't "smart"? The Galtians may think such ungifted creatures have nothing to offer; let's see how much the lords of industry can get accomplished when they have to clean their office bathrooms and mop the stairs and take out the trash for their fifty-story building. Every honest, hard-worker deserves to make a living wage, and you shouldn't have to be in the 1% of anything to get it.

  • How is it that the same people who believe the shit expressed in that FB posting also believe that inheritance taxes should be zero?
    Shouldn't we make the inheritance tax 100 percent? Otherwise those children of rich people never have the chance to work hard and pull themselves up by the bootstraps! We're totally depriving them of valuable experiences like subsisting for six years on Ramen noodles and that off-brand tuna that's probably canned in Chernobyl.

  • The analysis at the Persephone link is interesting, because it basically shows that even a responsible, smart, hard-working student will need college loans, unless their parents can pay for them.

    My only quibble with the Persephone article is the author's working assumption that University of Washington is a reasonably priced state school. In fact, University of Washington is an obscenely expensive university with sub-Ivy pretensions whose budget is being systematically and cynically starved by the state legislature who are too chickenshit to worry about the future of their own state. Not that I'm bitter.

  • On the upside, the poster of the nonsense photo will undoubtedly now have a full ride to the grad school of their choice: earned via the oldest profession. Just stick that Koch in your mouth, Sally! ;)

  • @Mike

    All taxes should be 100%…death tax, income tax, sales tax, whatever.

    There…all problems solved…I'm so smart!

  • @Dookie: What does that have to do with what I wrote? Also Washington does not have a state income tax. So I'm pretty sure that 0% < 100%.

  • PhoenixRising says:

    I realize that despite all we have, we are still one layoff and bad diagnosis away from losing ALL of it.

    You're not as unusual as you seem to think.

    That was our situation until 5 weeks ago. Then the lab called. (Guess what they said? Cancer costs as much money as you have, regardless of what that sum may be and how insured against loss you think you are.)

    I'm damn lucky to be in the position to hire a lawyer to make the for-profit, premium-collection scam called "individual health insurance" pay the doctors. Not better, just lucky. I've always worked hard. But plenty of Americans work hard and remain in the Precariat…at one level or another. Including this lying doofus.

  • Halloween Jack says:

    I might have written this sign when I was the same age as the writer, because, like him, I was young and stupid then. Not even a year later, trying to get a job after graduation and not having any luck, it would have been a different story. I hope this person is the eventual beneficiary of a similar learning experience.

  • I find myself puzzled by this sort of thing. The first time I went to college, it was with a 50% scholarship, and I still flamed out after 3 years cause I/my parents couldn't scrape together the $$ to cover the other 50%. So 3 years of saving and scrimping later, I try again for 2 years (tranfer blows almost all of my credits away) at a college closer to home. More finance problems, more flame out. Finally, 4 years later, I close out my debt-collection-agency account and go back one more time, having transferred to a major more in keeping with my full time job. More credit evaporation, and more student loans even though my employer reimbursed 85% of the tuition. 6 years of night school with a full time job, and I get my BS with $18,000 of student loan debt. My employer paid almost $30,000 for my BS. It took me 19 years to graduate college – longer than it took me to be born and graduate high school (in the top 10% of my class).

    I am the luckiest guy I have ever heard of, with regard to college education, and my experience sucked. Why in the world would I want anyone else to have as difficult a time getting a college education? "I worked my @$$ off for everything I have…"??? OF COURSE YOU DID!! YOU'RE GRADUATING COLLEGE – IT'S NOT A DAY AT THE BEACH!!

    College is hard enough on its own. Why can't we make financing it easier for the supposed successors on whom we will count to lead innovation and progress into the glorious future of our retirement? I don't know about you, but when I am 80 I would rather walk around in an exoskeleton that lets me use a public bathroom than wheel around in a chair with a bag hooked up to my innards. So some kid in grade school who will one day invent affordable exoskeletons had better be able to pay for college.

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