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How the reification of merit breeds inequality: theory and experimental evidence

Accominotti, Fabien and Tadmon, Daniel (2020) How the reification of merit breeds inequality: theory and experimental evidence. Working Paper (42). International Inequalities Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK.

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In a variety of social contexts, measuring merit or performance is a crucial step toward enforcing meritocratic ideals. At the same time, workable measures – such as ratings – are bound to obfuscate the intricacy inherent to any empirical occurrence of merit, thus reifying it into an artificially crisp and clear-cut thing. This article explores how the reification of merit breeds inequality in the rewards received by the winners and losers of the meritocratic race. It reports the findings of a large experiment (n = 2,844) asking participants to divide a year- end bonus among a set of employees based on the reading of their annual performance reviews. In the experiment’s non-reified condition, reviews are narrative evaluations. In the reified condition, the same narrative evaluations are accompanied by a crisp rating of the employees’ performance. We show that participants reward employees more unequally when performance is reified, even though employees’ levels of performance do not vary across conditions: most notably, the bonus gap between top- and bottom-performing employees increases by 20% between our non-reified and reified conditions, and it rises by another 10% when performance is presented as a quantified score. Further analyses suggest that reification fuels inequality both by reinforcing the authoritativeness of evaluation and by making observers more accepting of the idea that individuals can be meaningfully sorted into a merit hierarchy. This has direct implications for understanding the rise of legitimate inequality in societies characterized by the proliferation of reifying forms of evaluation.

Item Type: Monograph (Working Paper)
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2020 The Authors
Divisions: Sociology
International Inequalities Institute
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
JEL classification: J - Labor and Demographic Economics > J3 - Wages, Compensation, and Labor Costs > J30 - General
M - Business Administration and Business Economics; Marketing; Accounting > M1 - Business Administration > M10 - General
M - Business Administration and Business Economics; Marketing; Accounting > M5 - Personnel Economics > M50 - General
Z - Other Special Topics > Z1 - Cultural Economics; Economic Sociology; Economic Anthropology > Z10 - General
Date Deposited: 30 Mar 2020 09:51
Last Modified: 15 Sep 2023 23:50

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