On Fairness and Fortune

It’s happened to everybody. Maybe they mess up your order at a restaurant. Or maybe you didn’t get that promotion or new job you hoped you would get. We all get treated unfairly by the world.

Whenever this misfortune strikes, whether it be life-altering or merely a bad day, it’s only human to ask why:

Why me? Why now? Why this?

And it’s only human to force an answer, even when you know there can’t be a reason:

I knew that guy didn’t like me. I knew talking to her would end poorly. I knew I shouldn’t have trusted them.

In the course of human evolution, this constant questioning was a good thing. If you threw up after eating some berries, you’d realize the berries caused it and stop eating them. If you missed an animal you were hunting, you’d realize your bow was bent wrong or that you needed more spear-throwing practice.

In other words, the process of identifying causation (certain berries cause indigestion) allowed you to modify your behavior. Over time, our ability to blame causes for their effects would become essential to the social and technological developments required to create a common culture and civilization. That doesn’t mean it’s a good thing: warfare between human societies relies upon our instinctive affinity for finding simple causes for what we observe in the world by casting blame on others. After all, it is far easier and more intuitive to blame people’s non-adherence to your sacred ways for something bad that happened, rather than realize that a roll of the dice was responsible.

And herein lies the heart of our problem: a desire to exculpate chance. We are notoriously poor at probabilistic reasoning. If you don’t believe that, try this riddle: how many people do you need in a room for there to be at least a 50% chance two share the same birthday? (about 22, which seems like it must be wrong!) Because we cannot visualize chance correctly, we imagine up phantom causes, from harmless superstitions such as avoiding the numbers 13 or 4 to dangerous dogma like the belief that the poor stay that way only because they want to or that certain arbitrary groups of humans are “better” than other ones.

Ironically, by pretending chance doesn’t exist, we’ve created a world where it has less and less of an impact. Rising structural inequalities created by our society remove the role of chance in deciding who succeeds and who fails; the poor fail not because of chance but because we treat them as the poor. Minority groups deal with daily insults not because they accidentally ticked off a lot of people but because of their skin color or their accents. On the flip side, those who are successful by chance receive massive accolades, and then they are ascribed “honesty” and “diligence” to explain their success. Because we believe them to be honest and diligent, we allow them to succeed more and more. Whichever way you look at it, it’s a feedback loop that traps us in our own ignorance.

At the same time, larger populations lead to less personalized interactions, and soon you hear about your failures only through “Thank you for applying” emails. We seek naturally for a cause, dismiss chance as being irrelevant, and then invariably reach the same depressing conclusion: we failed because, well, because of ourselves. We don’t know who we were competing against, so obviously we can’t lay blame there. The corporate bureaucracy deciding our fate tunes their messaging to one of impartiality: “there were a lot of qualified applicants and it was difficult to decide”. Not “we found it difficult to decide” but “it was difficult to decide”.

To be blunt, the problem is that we don’t know why we failed or succeeded, and there’s no one willing to tell us. We might suspect that it’s just chance, but because we have no way of telling and because we crave a simple story, we feel deep down that it’s our fault. We’re like a child with a broken toy: it’s gone forever, we don’t know who did it or if it was just bad luck, but we do know our parents will scold us.

What does this system result in? A depressed and tired society, where even those who we think are more successful than us remain as downtrodden as everyone else. Where we crave approval so much we are willing to show the worst of our natures to attract attention. Where we rely on drugs and rushes of adrenaline to feel anything but sad.

To not end on such a dour note, I want to bring up some possibilities to make a better world. We need to acknowledge the role of chance in the world, realize that those who are successful either rose to the top because of luck or because of systemic biases that resulted from that luck. We have to believe that not only are there many qualified candidates for any position, but that all of them would probably perform about the same. We have to become more open about how we choose winners, and we need to make sure that those who lose know why they lost. Ultimately, we can fight as much as we want for fairness, but a process can only be fair if we know how it works.

And most importantly, you (yes, you!) need to be more deliberate in how you approach the world. Don’t just think about why something happens; try to understand how.

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