Success & Perception

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Success of any kind can distort the way we see things. And this is true of success that we experience personally, but also of success that we perceive in others.

There’s research that shows, for instance, that as we become wealthier, our measurable levels of empathy and compassion tend to decrease. Those of lower economic means, in contrast, often show a greater capacity for emotional intelligence than those of higher economic classes.

Does this mean that rich people are mean? Are they latently less humanistic and good than not-rich people?

No. But it does mean that there are statistically relevant distortions that can occur when one finds oneself in that kind of economic circumstance. The variables that inform how we see ourselves and other people may change—it may be that we no longer need to gauge other peoples’ emotional intricacies quite so assiduously just to survive and scrape by, so we reapply that energy elsewhere.

It may be that we suddenly find ourselves surrounded by people who seem to only care about us because we have money, which could very well change the way we see them, and ourselves. Such a scenario could also enflame our sense of self-consciousness, due to the suspicion that we’re only as good as the number of digits in our bank account.

It’s also fair to assume that being surrounded by yes-men all day—people who won’t tell you when your ideas are bad or that there’s spinach in your teeth, for fear of offending you, perhaps because they’re monetarily reliant on keeping you happy or hope that staying on your good side will benefit them in some way, some day—could lead to an over-abundance of self-confidence that slowly evolves into arrogance. After all: based on the evidence you’re receiving from the outside world, everything you do seems to be incredible, you’re the most attractive person who’s ever lived, and your accomplishments just get more impressive every day.

This sort of feedback could lead to changes in even the most self-aware person’s perception.

There are other variables that can cause us to gain an outsized sense of personal capability, however, including the Dunning-Kruger Effect: a cognitive bias that causes us to incorrectly assume that we are smarter or more capable than we are.

Leaving aside for a moment the imperfect nature of the concept of “smart,” the idea here is that most people will assess themselves as being above-average in skill or capability when it comes to just about anything. This assessment must be incorrect, of course, because if there’s an above-average, there must be a below-average. But this effect is especially pernicious because those who are particularly incapable or low-knowledge about something will at times be the most likely to overestimate their ability and understanding because they don’t know enough to know what they don’t know.

An example of this effect might be a non-politician watching a politician’s career and deciding that they could absolutely do better. There’s a chance that they’re right, but there’s also a very good chance that their assessment of their own political capabilities are predicated on a lack of understanding about what actually goes into running a government: something they’ve never done, have probably never been educated about, and thus, they have no understanding as to the vast gulf that exists between them and mastery when it comes to that particular realm of expertise.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect can be amplified by success in some unrelated field. This is part of why so many successful CEOs and entrepreneurs think they would be amazing Presidents, despite the lack of evidence that this would be the case—aside from the wealth they’ve accumulated doing entirely different things in a completely different sector, and their yes-men underlings reinforcing their sense of self-confidence.

The so-called Matthew Effect can also influence the way we think about successful people.

This effect is sometimes called the “Matthew Effect of Accumulated Advantage,” which is a reference to a Biblical passage from the book of Matthew that says, in one version: “For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken.”

In other words, those who have will accumulate more, and those who don’t have much to begin with will lose even what little they do have.

We can see this effect in action by looking at social media, where accounts with an abundance of followers will typically get more attention because of how the algorithms are set up, but also because viewers tend to give more weight and credibility to accounts with more followers, because they seem to be more legitimate.

We can also see it in the world of social science, where scientists with eminence—those who have written more papers, given more talks, and won more awards—will tend to be referenced more frequently in papers written by others, will be brought up in other scientists’ talks more often, and will be offered more opportunities to collaborate.

In both cases, having prestige grants one the opportunity to accumulate more prestige, faster, while those with less or no prestige may struggle just to get a single mention or follow or like.

It’s possible, then, that a person’s current success could be partly, or mostly, predicated on the passive rewards granted from previous successes; even if those successes were not their own, as is sometimes the case with children who inherit vast sums of money, who then go on to accumulate interest on that initial sum over the course of their lives. They have the same trappings and outcomes as those who earned their wealth through conscious action and knowledge, but it’s not the same thing in terms of how they got there.

One more success-related perceptual distortion is what’s often called Survivorship Bias, which usually manifests as an assumption that successful people are successful because of who they are, and thus, their collection of traits and habits and thinking patterns are probably worth mimicking.

This bias is an example of a logical error because when we make it, we do not consider the potentially great many people with the same traits who have not experienced the same level of success.

It’s a common trope in certain facets of the entrepreneurial world, for instance, to look at moody, rude, interpersonally flawed people who have succeeded in business, and to assume that one should be moody and flawed in similar ways if one wants to be successful in such industries.

This perception, though, ignores the fact that, although at least one person with those traits did well, there are countless other people who are also rude and socially unappealing in similar ways who no one has heard of.

We imbue certain successful people with a type of reverence that causes us to ignore a great many variables from which they benefitted, and instead fixate on just a few glaring, caricaturized traits that we feel we can copy.

It’s easier to attempt to be vaguely sociopathic and dress a certain way than it is to ensure we’re born at the right moment, go to the right schools, are brought up in the right socioeconomic class, and happen to have certain predispositions toward specific fields of inquiry that give us an asymmetrical leg up over most other people working in the professions we eventually choose to pursue.

Speaking of professional asymmetry: sometimes a person becomes notable not because they’re any better than their peers according to the typical measurements of such things, but rather because they stand out in some memorable way.

The Von Restorff Effect, also called the Isolation Effect, says that in a crowd in which pretty much everyone is homogenous, the individual who stands out, even in some seemingly non-meaningful way, will tend to be remembered.

This may refer to the woman entering the field typically dominated by men, or the person with the accent that’s highly unusual in the region in which they go to school. One’s gender identity and accent have little or nothing to do with a person’s performance on stage or their ability with numbers, but it’s possible to receive advantages and disadvantages, relative to everyone else, if you possess a trait that the others do not.

Which means your unusual way of speaking or looking could be the thing that launches you past your otherwise-equal peers, or those same distinctions could result in an opposite bias, necessitating that you work five-times as hard for half the recognition offered to those who better blend into the archetypical milieu.

A lot of our issues with success, though, whether we’re perceiving it in ourselves or someone else, tie back to a psychological condition called apophenia: a tendency to perceive connections and meaning between unconnected, unrelated things.

This tendency, in moderation, can be valuable. It’s potentially related to creativity, as being able to find such connections and express them in communicative, evocative ways is often what we respond to in artwork that we enjoy.

In other circumstances, though, it’s possible to completely misunderstand which variables catalyzed the success we see in someone else’s life, or which of our own skills and abilities helped us achieve the success that we enjoy.

It’s difficult for many of us to accept the concept of randomness, and that things can just happen for no discernible reason, unaligned with any bigger plan or explanation. And as a result, many people attribute success at gambling to skill, rather than luck, even when the nature of the game they’re playing is impossible to influence; is completely random in every meaningful way.

The one exception to this is that we’re more likely to attribute our own success—at anything, in any field or trade or practice—to skill, while we’re more likely to attribute other peoples’ success—especially people we’re not particularly fond of for whatever reason—to luck.

What’s more, our blind spot for cognitive biases will sometimes allow us to see the misperceptions other people are suffering from, while remaining blind to the possibility that we, ourselves, might be suffering from the same.

Success of any kind is almost always at least partly the consequence of some kind of skill and know-how, even if not necessarily the kind that we might suspect. But it’s prudent to assume bias is at play when we think about success in general, whomever happens to be the target of our assessment.

There’s such an abundance of cognitive fuzziness and misattribution in this space that it’s unlikely most of us will ever get anything close to an accurate bearing unless we assume, from the outset, that our perceptions will be wildly distorted, and almost certainly slanted in a way that favors our egos and the potentially mythological protagonism of our heroes.


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