EMMA'S NOTES #28

Fair-world fallacy

🙋🏼‍♀️ Dearest you,

Lately, I've been thinking about a cognitive bias I've started to call the fair world fallacy.

There are cases in which there seems to be a causal relationship between being privileged and thinking the world is fair.

Those who have benefited from their privilege will state their own abilities as the origin of their success because they perceive the world as a fair place. Their pattern of thought seems logical because if the world is a level playing field then the only reason for one to succeed and another to fail is a difference in ability, right?

Sometimes being privileged is seen as a bad deed. It is not. You have no control over the circumstances into which you are born, therefore we cannot blame somebody for being privileged. A more fruitful discussion would be the moral responsibility one who is privileged has to help others and the extent to which this responsibility should be regulatory enforced. To get to this more fruitful discussion it is imperative that you agree on the existence of privilege and this unfairness in the world.

However, the fair world fallacy can stand in the way of this in a number of ways:

The fair world bias often stems from idealism and an honest wish.

Of course, it can be a nice feeling to think of your accomplishments as solely your own work. And yes we like to think the things that make us feel good. Often, however, privileged people don't perceive the world as a fair place out of self-interest. They honestly want to believe it's fair because they want to see a world in which others are able to succeed as well. Coming to terms with the current fact that unfortunately, not all people get a fair shot can be painful.

It's complex if not impossible to define which success is a consequence of privilege and which is thanks to personal ability.

While growing up my parents often stressed the fact that you have no control over the circumstances you are born to. They used this idea as a way to teach us gratitude because there are a lot of people who have received less money, material goods, food, love, and safety for reasons outside of their control.

The effects of these circumstances are hard to assess on an individual level, however. The core of the nature-nurture problem is that one cannot be born again in alternative circumstances for the sake of experiment. My life might have turned out completely different if I was born somewhere else, but we will never know what that would look like exactly. Therefore, often attempts to precisely define which parts of one's success are thanks to privilege and which are self-made are pointless. Consequently, this is not a productive way to create awareness over the fair world fallacy.

Seeing your own accomplishments in the light of an unfair world can be painful

If you've spent a substantial proportion of your life thinking that you are the creator of your success it can be painful to honestly see the role of privilege in your accomplishments. In a world where personal success and independence are loudly applauded one can associate their accomplishments with their value as a human being and essentially saying that they haven't deserved this value themselves hurts.

The reason why I wanted to share these thoughts with you is that I think it's important to remind ourselves time and time again that our perceptions are colored. The only antidote against this human tendency is an honest curiosity for the perspective of others and a commitment to constantly remind ourselves of biases our thinking is under the influence of.

PS: Maybe the reverse is true too, meaning those who are very much unprivileged tend to think of the world as unfair.

PPS: It could be that this fair world fallacy already exists, but unfortunately I couldn't find anything about it. Should you know, please let me know - I'd love to learn!

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