Lucky For Life

On lotteries and cumulative advantage—and why we suck at making decisions

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We’ve been taught that meritocracy is the most fair way to make decisions. But what if lotteries are?

The way we make decisions is flawed. We’re biased. We all make choices based on a series of subjective and personal values and ideas we hold about the world. Some of these perceptions are more harmful than others. What happens when we extrapolate them outwards? What happens when we consider not just the immediate implications of our decisions, but their lifelong impact?

I’ve talked about my skepticism of traditional hiring and decision-making processes in previous editions of this newsletter. In response, I’ve proposed a few out-there ideas to make these scenarios more fair. (My favorite is probably throwing a bunch of resumes into a Chuck E. Cheese-style ticket blaster when hiring—you can have that one for free, HR departments.)

On the latest episode of Boss Barista, I interviewed Mansi Chokshi, the regional community manager for the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA). Among other topics, we talked about a recent change to a scholarship program that she implemented. Every year, the SCA gives away a certain number of free tickets to their events, and for this year’s Sensory Summit, a conference exploring the dynamic nature of taste, the SCA decided to award scholarships at random:

“The process in which we started with vetting [for Re:co scholarships], we would get people applying for positions. We would look at their applications.

It’s hard, it’s hard to say, ‘How would one person in this random city across the country, why is it that they are more deserving of this opportunity than somebody else that maybe works for a bigger company, but is feeling like they’re unable to access the right resources? And they need the scholarship so they can get to it?’

There’s a lot of room for unconscious bias to come in. So there was a lot in that process and we finally just said, ‘You know what? We’re just going to have people apply. And we’re going to do a random lottery for selection, because if they say they need it, they need it.’”

Mansi mentioned an episode of Revisionist History—a podcast hosted by Malcolm Gladwell, author of books like The Tipping Point and Outliers. This isn’t a pro- or anti-Gladwell argument (I don’t want criticisms of his work to get in the way of this particular discussion), but in the episode, he talks about the idea of lotteries as a way of doling out roles and resources. From funding for scientific research to leadership positions on student councils, Gladwell and others argue that so-called “merit-based” systems simply replicate current power structures and obscure the confirmation bias that we carry with us through our daily interactions.

We’ve all experienced this phenomenon in different ways. Perhaps when you were a child, you avoided running for student council because you knew a popular kid would win. Maybe later in life, you decided not to put yourself forward for a promotion because your affable colleague was going for the same position.

Or perhaps your life has been marked by what you might call a mix of luck and hard work. You’ve gotten most of the things you’ve gone for. But have the jobs, scholarships, or awards you’ve received truly been a reflection of your hard work—or has one lucky opportunity precipitated others? How do you know that you were actually the hardest-working person in the room? How do you know you were the one who most deserved an opportunity?

We seem to know, on some level, that choices aren’t objective. In recent years, the judges at the United States Coffee Competitions have undergone unconscious bias training in an attempt to assess all competitors as fairly as they can. But that puts the spotlight of unfair advantages and disadvantages on one event, one exact timeframe where we can sit and attempt to judge people with slightly less bias, and more awareness, than usual. What about every other decision that preceded that moment?

In the Revisionist History episode, Gladwell follows the work of Democracy in Practice, which helps students in Bolivia implement democratic lotteries to elect their student councils. Students who are interested throw their names in for consideration and are “elected” based on a random lottery. The results showed that not only did more kids express interest in assuming leadership, but the issues they chose to tackle were much more diverse. The leadership council was no longer a monolith of the same types of people trying to do the exact same type of work as their predecessors.

Ultimately, the question comes down to: Who are we to judge need, passion, and interest? There are so many factors, and so much context, that folks cannot express within the bounds of a single application or interview. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be a floor for engaging in certain roles. This paper, which is also referenced in the Revisionist History episode, notes that, to increase diversity and representation, a modified lottery—in which applicants must pass a baseline “meritorious” evaluation of their work before being randomly chosen for funding—can work.

This shift in approach forces us to address our inherently problematic framework for judging the worth of others. In past articles, I’ve mentioned how the language of “giving someone a job” or “who is most deserving” means that the power to make life-changing decisions lies in the hands of just a few gatekeepers or people in positions of influence. Naturally, those in power are more likely to share opportunities with those whom they identify with.

Many of the articles I read for this piece reference an idea called “The Matthew Effect.” This theory introduces the idea of cumulative advantage: Folks who start with a lucky break or a good opportunity will often continue to get lucky breaks and good opportunities thrown their way. (The inverse is also true.) Decision-making processes obscure that cumulative effect, and it hides under the guise of “merit.” Not only do the same people get the greatest advantages, but we’ve created a system that conditions those people to think they uniquely deserve them.

This is especially important to consider when we talk about scholarships—systems meant to equalize and give advantages to those who might not have had equitable access to resources. If the aim of a program is to provide that access, is the right way to determine entrants’ merit via an application process? Isn’t that just employing the same tools that limited the applicant pool to begin with?

I’m still trying to figure out how applicable this theory is on a broader scale. But as Mansi explained, it was successful for the applicants to Sensory Summit—and I’m curious to see how it could work in the context of hiring and promoting people and giving out funding. Creating a baseline for a position or an opportunity—and then engaging in a lottery after that—means leaders and decisions-makers must think about and transparently outline their values. And it means we end up with a more broadly representative pool of people in decision-making positions.

A bonus outcome? There are no more hiring decisions based on nepotism, or some nebulous “good vibes” an interviewer had about a candidate during the application process. Instead, this system opens up opportunity to folks who would not have otherwise had access, for so many systemic, wide-ranging reasons.

It’s time to stop electing the popular kids. Let’s mix things up.

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