Home > #OWS, internet startup, rant, women in math > Meritocracy and horizon bias

Meritocracy and horizon bias

December 9, 2011

I read this article yesterday about racism in Silicon Valley. It’s interesting, written by an interesting guy named Eric Ries, and it touches on stuff I’ve thought about like stereotype threat and the idea that diverse teams perform better than homogeneous ones.

In spite of liking the article pretty well, I take issue with two points.

In the beginning of the article Ries lays down some ground rules, and one of them is that “meritocracy is good.” Is it really good? Always? And to what limit? People are born with talent just as they’re born rich or poor, and what makes talent a better or more fair way of sorting people? Or are we just claiming it’s more efficient?

Actually I could go on but this blog post kind of says everything I wanted to say on the matter. As an aside, I’m kind of sick of the way people use the idea of “meritocracy” to overpay people who they justify as having superhuman qualifications (I’m looking at you, CEO’s) or a ridiculous, massively scaleable amount of luck (most super rich entrepreneurs).

Second, I’m going to coin a term here, but I’m sure someone else has already done so. Namely, I consider it horizon bias to think that wherever you are, whatever you do, is the coolest place in the world and that everyone else is just super jealous of you and wishes they had that job. So you don’t look beyond your horizon to see that there are other jobs that may be more attractive to people. The reason this comes up is the following paragraph:

What accounts for the decidedly non-diverse results in places like Silicon Valley? We have two competing theories. One is that deliberate racisms keeps people out. Another is that white men are simply the ones that show up, because of some combination of aptitude and effort (which it is depends on who you ask), and that admissions to, say Y Combinator, simply reflect the lack of diversity of the applicant pool, nothing more.

I’d like to offer a third option, namely that only white guys show up because that’s who thinks working in Silicon Valley is an attractive idea. I know it’s kind of like the second option above, but it’s not exactly. The qualification “because of some combination of aptitude and effort” is the difference.

Let’s say I’m considering moving to Silicon Valley to work. But all of my images of that place come from movies and my experiences with my actual friends in the dotcom bubble era who slept under their desks at night. Plus I know that the housing market out there is crazy and that the commute sucks. Finally, I’d picture myself working with lots of single, ambitious, and arrogant young men who believe in meritocracy (code for: use vaguely libertarian philosophical arguments to act ruthlessly). I can imagine that these facts keep plenty of non-white non-men away.

Next, going on to the point about horizon bias. People who already work in Silicon Valley already selected themselves as people who think it’s a great deal. And then they sit around wondering why it’s not a more diverse place, in spite of having everything awesomely meritocratic.

Going back to the article, Ries mentions this idea that diverse teams outperform homogeneous ones. I’d like to look at that in light of horizon bias and ask whether that’s the wrong way to look at it. In other words maybe it’s more a function of what the common goal is, which leads to a diverse team if the common goal is broadly attractive, than how the exact team was created. If goals are super attractive, attractive enough to draw diverse people, then maybe those goals deserve success more.

For example, one of the strengths of Occupy Wall Street has been the diversity of its membership. People of all ages, all backgrounds, and all races have been coming together to speak for the 99%. It’s of course fitting, since 99% does represent lots of people, but I’d like to point out that it is diverse because the cause resonates with so many people, which makes it successful.

Another example. I worked at the math department at M.I.T., which is famously not diverse. And I saw the “Truth Values” play recently which made me think about that experience some more. There’s lots of horizon bias in math, because there’s this assumption that everyone who was ever a math major should want to someday become a math professor (at M.I.T. no less). So it’s easy enough to wring your hands when you see that, although 45% of the undergrad math majors are women, and 40% of the grad students in math are women (I’m making these numbers up by the way), only 1% of the tenured faculty at the top places are women (again totally made up).

And of course there’s real discrimination involved (trust me), but there’s also the possibility that a bunch of women just never wanted to be a professor, they just wanted to get a Ph.D. for whatever reason. But the horizon bias at the top places assumes that everyone would want to become a professor.

On the one hand I’m just making things worse, because I’m pointing out that in addition to the real discrimination that takes place for those women who actually do want to become professors, there’s also this natural but invisible self-selection thing going on where women leave the professorship train at some point. Seems like I’ve made one problem into two.

On the other hand, we can address this horizon bias, if it exists. But instead of addressing it by blotting out the names of candidates on applications (a good idea by the way, and one I think I’ll start using), we would need to address it by looking at the actual company or department or culture and see why it’s less than attractive to people who aren’t already there. It’s a bigger and harder kind of change.

  1. December 9, 2011 at 9:18 am

    Interesting discussion of horizon bias…I saw some ties to this new Vox piece:

    Women and the corridors of power: New evidence
    Andrew Healy, 9 December 2011

    “At this week’s summit on the future of the euro, Angela Merkel will be one of few women in a room full of men. This column provides experimental evidence to suggest that women are often less driven by the desire to compete and have less belief in their abilities than men. The result is that even the highest ranks of power may be bereft of the most able of candidates.”

    I would only add that for women who do decide to compete it’s not always rewarding. Not because they aren’t capable, but there are other demands and interests. The “bad mother / bad wife” comments from people I care about are particularly bothersome. And I am just a government economist. If had gone to a research university as I hoped, I suspect I would be divorced or getting a tenure rejection letter (or both). But, hey we all make choices. I agree that horizon bias may make some people value my choice (those libertarians *love* government employees) less, but I can’t worry about that…I have too much fun stuff to do.


  2. Annie
    December 9, 2011 at 10:54 am

    First, as someone who grew up in Silicon Valley, I’m really very puzzled by this assertion that it’s “all white.” There is a SIZABLE minority of Asians there, both East Asians and South Asians.

    Second, you’ve talked about the self-selection of women out of academia before(https://mathbabe.org/2011/07/06/does-an-academic-job-in-math-really-suck/). I totally think it’s a large reason why there are fewer women in the upper echelons of academia. I’ve noticed that men seem a little more prone to buying into “horizon bias” (my term for that is “brainwashing”, by the way). I’ve particularly noticed this, actually, when I meet young male econ grad students and I tell them who my father is, and some of them start totally raving about him to the point where I want to say “Look, you do realize he’s just a human being, right?” Female econ grad students never do this. I think this is because male economists seem to be much more into the power side of the profession, figuring out the hierarchy of intellectual prestige, who’s in charge of which journal, who’s smarter. While I find that all incredibly boring. But I like doing research!


    • Bruno
      December 9, 2011 at 11:34 am

      Who is your father? 🙂


    • David
      December 11, 2011 at 8:47 pm

      Yeah, I also thought that SV was white and Asian (or maybe even Asian and white becuase, if I remember this correctly, Asians are over-represented more than whites).


  3. December 9, 2011 at 11:29 am

    I think you have nailed the weaknesses of the ground rule ‘meritocracy is an unalloyed good’ pretty well. However I also take issue the other ground rule ‘diversity is not necessarily a worthwhile end in itself’. I have commented on a previous blog entry about the code breakers in WWII. I also remember a comment by Gore Vidal about conspiracy theories relating to the American political elite: ‘There is no conspiracy in the conventional sense of the word. It is just that so many of them come from the same social class and went to the same schools that they all think similarly.’ I respect his view on this because he is himself a scion of one of the great American political dynasties.

    Since you are a data scientist, Cathy, you will probably be more impressed by the statistical evidence that is beginning to emerge of correlation between public company performance and diversity of the executive members of the company boards. Unfortunately, since so many companies have not been very diverse historically, I don’t know if any of the analyses have managed to achieve good levels of significance yet.

    Therefore it may be that if you make a proper analysis of the inherent benefits and disbenefits of both diversity and meritocracy, it may be worth trading off the advantages of a diverse organisation against the disadvantages of judging individuals without reference to their social context. (Of course I don’t advocate ignoring individual ability or judging people only by their race/gender/ethnicity/other social grouping. I am suggesting that neither pure strategy is optimum).

    I certainly agree with your idea of horizon bias. Since the practical reason why I advocate diversity is to get people who think differently, one from another, the group that is required must have different personal goals and priorities from each other. So ‘horizon bias’ is likely to be even more of an issue than measuring gender or race would lead one to believe.


  4. Susama Agarwala
    December 9, 2011 at 1:29 pm

    “although 45% of the undergrad math majors are women, and 40% of the grad students in math are women”

    You were at MIT math at a very different time than I was 😉

    I’m not understanding how “horizon bias” is different from what many call unconscious or inadvertent discrimination. For instance, one of the assumptions of being a mathematician is that one goes flying around to conferences, drinks beer and scribbles on coasters at bars. This was a draw for me into this field. But it is sometimes physically not possible for someone with a small child, or someone who can’t (or won’t) drink. The same can be said for the experience of randomly walking into the graduate lounge, while a group of guys are discussing penis sizes, having the conversation abruptly end, making you feel unwanted (or unsafe, depending on the woman). Or having people constantly make statement about mathematicians that do not, or cannot, match your gender or race.

    These all come from the attitude of “I’m here because I want to be here, and am good enough to be here, and I enjoy hanging out with other people who also want to be here, and are good enough to be here.” But these are all examples of discrimination, in that the job unofficially asks someone to perform duties that are significantly more difficult for reasons of gender, race or religion, or to exist in an environment that is hostile to them.


    • December 9, 2011 at 2:25 pm

      Not sure about the undergrad percentage, but 40% is an overestimate for the grad percentage. In my entering year of ’06 it was about 25% which is on the higher side for recent years.


      • JBL
        December 10, 2011 at 4:38 pm

        There are 17 female MIT grad students out of 101 total (modulo counting errors on my part). [NB: all numbers beyond this point are drawn from my faulty memory] The percentage of Ph.D.s in math nationwide granted to women is higher (above 30% last time I looked it up). I suspect the numbers for undergraduate math majors are higher still.

        Of course, part of the reason that there are fewer women among tenured professors is that the tenured professorate are an earlier generation; the currently-retiring generation probably got their Ph.D.s in the 1960s, about the all-time low point for women as a percentage of Ph.D.s. (Women hit nearly 20% of Ph.D.s in math some time in the 1930s. Post-WWII, the numbers didn’t get that high again until the late 1980s.)

        Much recommended essay by Cathy Kessel specifically about the percentage of women in mathematics is available here: http://scholarship.claremont.edu/jhm/vol1/iss2/


  5. Annie
    December 9, 2011 at 2:34 pm



    • JBL
      December 10, 2011 at 4:29 pm

      Yes, but this is two mathematicians talking, and the invitation to quibble about this sort of detail is irresistible to many of the mathematical persuasion. So, for example, I find it impossible to pass up the opportunity to note that not everyone in that discussion is a “guy”. (Sorry.)


  6. FogOfWar
    December 9, 2011 at 9:47 pm

    When I think of “meritocracy”, what comes to my mind is that it’s the absence of, say, “nepotism” or “cronyism” (or “racism” for that matter). If there’s a bunch of people working at a job and a slot opens up for promotion, a meritocracy chooses the person who has worked hard and has an aptitude for their work and often the person who has made personal sacrifices (for whatever internal reason) for their job. This is nice when it happens, but unfortunately there are a *lot* of times where the promotion is given to someone who is the kid of a Congressman (or President or Vice President or senior person working at big client of the company), or who happens to be at the same social club as the people who are currently in promoted positions, or in the extreme case who has the same skin color or accent as the people who are currently in promoted positions.

    When any of those other decisions are made, our natural (and right) impulse is to say “what the fuck?”

    The point you’re making is that the final outcome is also dependent on people wanting the promotion and being willing to make sacrifices to get it, and so extrapolating from the end result (“horizon bias” to use your words) can be incorrect. I completely agree and think it’s a very prevalent phenomenon across many industries. Just don’t think it’s a slight against the core concept of wanting the world to be more fair for the people who *do* want the job and are willing to make the sacrifices, but are passed over for a politician’s kid or someone who’s from the “right” kind of family.



  7. FogOfWar
    December 11, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    Just read Kwok’s original post here: http://baselinescenario.com/2009/11/02/smart-hard-working-people/

    Lots of deep stuff (and I remember that passage from ATOJ). I’m just going to say: what does Kwok think we should do in the above example? Choose the promotion by lottery? Down-twinkles.



  8. David
    December 11, 2011 at 9:37 pm

    Nice post, Cathy.

    I bet (almost) everyone can find an example of horizon bias in their own world view.

    Horizon bias as defined above is an interesting special case of a larger (and more familiar) phenomenon, namely the notion that we/us/our are good/better and others are bad/worse.

    Racism, xenophobia are the notorious side of this. Silly things like my parents saying (when I was a kid/teenager), look at the neighbors, how they can they live in such a messy place (or insert another different-than-my-parents’ way of living).

    And I did dislike how most professors implied that you are a failure as a PhD., if you don’t become a proferssor/do leave academia.


  9. December 14, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    Very nice post, thanks. The concept of horizon bias is really helpful; it concisely names something I think abut a lot. Another facet of it might be called, “internalized horizon bias,” i.e. the way someone can feel like she is supposed to want to be, for example, a top MIT math professor, but if she finds herself drawn to other things, then it must be due to lack of merit.

    I was a grad student in math at MIT (with Gioia, who stars in and wrote Truth Values), so I’m not speaking theoretically, here…. after I first saw the play, I wrote a post about it which I can now describe as containing a fair amount about coping with horizon bias. It’s here http://debraborkovitz.com/2009/09/truth-values-one-girl%E2%80%99s-romp-through-mit%E2%80%99s-male-math-maze/.


  10. December 18, 2011 at 5:26 am

    Excellent post! I was so moved I wrote my own (decidedly non-quantitative) follow-up on my impressions of the state of the SV meritocracy here:


    Thanks for the article!


  1. December 13, 2011 at 10:37 pm
  2. December 18, 2011 at 5:17 am
  3. December 21, 2011 at 4:50 pm
  4. February 24, 2012 at 6:57 am
  5. May 15, 2012 at 7:11 am
Comments are closed.
%d bloggers like this: