Every day we make decisions that impact others. Who will be our date, who will get to buy our  beloved heirloom, or who will be our children’s nanny, our dog walker or personal accountant? Such decisions are often influenced by demographic characteristics that are protected by federal law against employment discrimination, including gender, age, or race. But these decisions can also be influenced by legally unprotected demographic characteristics—such as educational attainment or alma mater – that unfortunately may carry biases.

Although ample research shows that biases lead individuals to make discriminatory decisions, my colleague and I argue that there is another reason why discrimination may be hard to root out. Paradoxically, individuals use meritocratic principles to judge the fairness of a decision, consequently perpetuating discrimination.

Meritocratic Ideals

Especially in Western countries, individuals make decisions about fairness based on meritocratic ideals: a decision is justified when individuals are rewarded on the basis of their efforts, skills, and abilities. For instance, not hiring a dog walker because of their race seems unfair, because race has nothing to do with merit (one’s ability to do the job). However, not hiring a dog walker because they lack suitable experience with dogs is fair, because the decision is made on the basis of merit. Yet, in many situations, it remains unclear which specific demographic characteristics are perceived as merit-based and judged as fair to use.  

What Makes A Given Characteristic Merit-Based?

We found that two key factors determine whether people think a given characteristic reflects merit:

  • Controllability—the extent to which individuals have control over a given characteristic that they possess.  
  • Relevance—the extent to which the given characteristic is relevant to performance. For instance, despite its relative controllability, a dog walker’s education isn’t a justifiable reason for choosing a walker, unless the candidate’s training is specific to caring for dogs.

Across nine studies, we found that if a decision is based on these two factors, then it is viewed as fair. For example, in one study, 1,500 U.S. adults were asked to think about selection based on one of the following characteristics: race, gender, age, alma mater, caregiving responsibilities, disability, educational attainment, national origin, family origin, established network connections, physical attractiveness, political affiliation, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. Participants read that selection based on the given characteristic involves treating someone unfavorably because they belong to a certain group or because they have a certain characteristic associated with the given demographic marker. Once they indicated how much they believe such selection is fair, they rated the extent to which the characteristic is controllable by a person and how relevant the characteristic is to most jobs.

Indeed, ratings of controllability and relevance positively related to perceptions of selection fairness. People thought that hiring someone on the basis of a demographic characteristic is fair when the characteristic is viewed as controllable and relevant (such as selection based on educational attainment). However, hiring someone on the basis of a demographic characteristic is unfair when the characteristic is viewed as uncontrollable and irrelevant, such as selection based on race or gender.

We also explored whether knowledge about whether the given characteristic is illegal to select on affects how these factors relate to fairness. We found that controllability and relevance still predicted fairness perceptions, regardless of whether the particular characteristic was protected by law. In other words, even if sexual orientation is a legally protected category, meaning that employers can be sued if they discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, people perceived such discrimination as fair if they believed sexual orientation was controllable and relevant. We found similar results in a follow-up study of individuals who often make hiring decisions at work, suggesting that even people who are experienced with making selection decisions rely on such meritocratic principles, ultimately perpetuating discrimination.

Are Relevance And Controllability Equally Important When People Make Decisions?

Yet, not all demographic characteristics are equally controllable and relevant. Some may be controllable and irrelevant, while others may be uncontrollable and relevant. For instance, one’s religious beliefs may be perceived as relatively controllable by the individual, but highly irrelevant for most jobs. One’s caregiving responsibilities in their private life (to take care of a child or a sick relative) may be perceived as relevant to some jobs (would they be able to work overtime?), yet such responsibilities are relatively uncontrollable. In the presence of such mismatch, we found that people rely more on relevance rather than controllability to determine if a decision is fair. Perhaps this is because hiring situations, in particular, may lead people to think more about the success of the business. Namely, doing good for the business (hiring someone who would work overtime) may take precedence over doing good for society (preventing discrimination against caregivers). As such, this mindset may help people justify their discriminatory decisions.

How Do Merit Principles Lead To Discrimination?

While relying on meritocracy seems like a fair judgment principle, it can perpetuate discrimination because perceptions of controllability and relevance make some demographic characteristics feel fair to select upon. Therefore, individuals may act in discriminatory ways without feeling discriminatory. For instance, in our studies, we found that characteristics such as age and disability were perceived as highly relevant characteristics despite their lack of controllability. Consequently, individuals perceived decisions against individuals of certain age or ability as fair. Such perceptions, however, remain a far cry from following legal standards.

This work shows that even when individuals use principles of meritocracy, they may make decisions that hurt others, despite thinking that they act in fair ways. Using these meritocratic principles may lead to rejecting individuals who should not be rejected, thus perpetuating discrimination.

For Further Reading

Jetten, J., Iyer, A., Branscombe, N. R., & Zhang, A. (2013). How the disadvantaged appraise group-based exclusion: The path from legitimacy to illegitimacy. European Review of Social Psychology24(1), 194-224. https://doi.org/10.1080/10463283.2013.840977

Tomova Shakur, T. K., & Phillips, L. T. (2022). What counts as discrimination? How principles of merit shape fairness of demographic decisions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000383

Teodora K. Tomova Shakur is a PhD Candidate in Management at New York University. She investigates issues of nepotism, cronyism, and employee referrals and their implications for organizations and society at large.