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A Debunking of an Appealing- But Wrong- Theory on “Success” Leads to This Question: How to Measure “Success”

April 9, 2016

I just read “How Not to Explain Success“, an article by Union College professors Christopher Chabris and Joshua Hart that will appear in tomorrow’s NYTimes. Chabris and Hart open the article recounting a theory advanced two years ago in “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America”, a book by Yale law professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld which:

….contended that certain ethnic and religious minority groups (among them, Cubans, Jews and Indians) had achieved disproportionate success in America because their individual members possessed a combination of three specific traits: a belief that their group was inherently superior to others; a sense of personal insecurity; and a high degree of impulse control.

Chabris and Hart, being research psychologists and not law professors, decided to do an empirical analysis of this theory and found it wanting. In their findings, which were based on “…two online surveys of a total of 1,258 adults in the United States (where) (e)ach participant completed a variety of standard questionnaires to measure his or her impulsiveness, ethnocentrism and personal insecurity” Chabris and Hart found that the best predictors of success were:

First, the more successful participants had higher cognitive ability, more educated parents and better impulse control.

…(S)econd.. the more successful participants did not possess greater feelings of ethnocentrism or personal insecurity.

Finally, we found no special “synergy” among the triple package traits.

Chabris and Hart conclude their article with these two paragraphs:

In this case, our studies affirmed that a person’s intelligence and socioeconomic background were the most powerful factors in explaining his or her success, and that the triple package was not — even when we carefully measured every element of it and considered all of the factors simultaneously.

Professors Chua and Rubenfeld created a provocative theory, and they spun around it an intricate web of circumstantial evidence, but it did not stand up to direct empirical tests. Our conclusion regarding “The Triple Package” is expressed by the saying, “What is new is not correct, and what is correct is not new.”

You’ll note that throughout this post I’ve bold-faced and italicized the word “success” and words that incorporated “success” because when I completed the reading I asked myself this question: are the factors Chabris and Hart use to define “success” valid and worthwhile? I went back and found this sentence that indicted the basis Chabris and Hart used to differentiate “successful” participants:

Then they reported their income, occupation, education and other achievements, such as receiving artistic, athletic or leadership awards, all of which we combined to give each person a single score for overall success.

My upbringing, my ten years of Buddhist practice, and my personal experience may color my thinking, but I do not agree with the proxies Chabris and Hart used to define “success“. High income, a professional occupation, and “athletic or leadership award” may confer status on an individual, but I know of many individuals who achieved all of the above and are incarcerated because of poor ethical judgments and even more individuals who fell prey to addictions of various sorts because after attaining “success” as defined by economic and social status still found something missing in their lives. As long as we continue to conflate status with success we will continue to rely on externalities to motivate students and appeal to the competitive nature in each of us instead of the compassionate nature we each possess…. and moving forward we should be placing a higher value on compassion and a diminished emphasis on competition if we hope to achieve a successful civilization.

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