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The Psychology and Mythology of The Self-Made Man

Can a person be solely responsible for creating their own fortune?

Key points

  • The concept of the Self-Made Person - an individual who is solely responsible for their own wealth - is worthy of greater scrutiny.
  • The esteem for "Self-Made" people may be due to fundamental attribution error: A bias where we assume an outcome is due to a person's personality
  • Research finds that the fundamental attribution error is more prevalent in America and Western Europe.

And just like that, $1.3B was gone.

In February 2018 Snapchat’s stock price suddenly plummeted 7%. This wasn’t a shareholder report, a new competitor, or a corporate scandal. Instead, the drop was tied to an 88 character tweet by Kylie Jenner:

"Sooo does anyone else not open Snapchat anymore? Or is it just me... ugh this is so sad."

The impact on SNAP underscored the tremendous power that Jenner achieved as an influencer and cemented her place as a force to be reckoned with in the business world. And almost exactly a year later, her name was again also associated with the word “billion”.

Photo by Nimble Made via UnSplash
Is there such thing as a truly self-made person?
Source: Photo by Nimble Made via UnSplash

In March 2019, it was announced that Kylie Jenner, then aged 21, reached the $1B mark, dubbing her moniker of the youngest-ever self-made billionaire. There are other, younger billionaires in existence, but these people inherited large portions of their wealth, therefore, excluding them from the ‘self-made’ category. While Kylie of course comes from a famous family, she didn’t benefit from a significant financial inheritance.

While this standard definition of “self-made” (inherited wealth or non-inherited wealth) is straightforward, it begs a bigger question: What does it actually mean to be self-made? For anyone who attains this level of wealth, should this be seen as a solely personal accomplishment?

Implicit is the assumption that the wealthy deserve to be wealthy. But do they? And are there downsides to seeing wealth creation in these purely individualistic terms?

The Social Psychology of The Self-Made Man

The issue of being self-made cuts into a core area of social psychology: how do we attribute the actions of others?

In everyday life, we naturally and instantly form judgments about the meaning behind the behaviors we witness. Imagine sitting in class on the first day of the semester, when the professor bursts in unkept, sweaty, and panicked; their briefcase full of papers flying everywhere. You may assume from this that the professor is simply irresponsible.

He’s the kind of person who would show up unprepared for the first day of class. And you may be right. But it’s also possible that the professor’s behavior isn’t due to something about them. Instead, it might be something about their situation. Maybe, for example, they were sideswiped on the way to work, and they had to sprint to class.

Photo by Jaime Lopes via UnSplash
Conceptions of Self-Made wealth come down to how we attribute the behavior and outcome of others
Source: Photo by Jaime Lopes via UnSplash

This divergence in interpretation represents the two general ways in which we come to understand another person’s behavior: either we attribute it to the individual themselves, that it must represent a core, enduring personality trait, or that the behavior is due to the situation.

Research suggests that we're biased towards dispositional explanations for behavior. That is, we automatically assume someone’s behavior is due to their core, enduring personality, and not due to the situation they’re in. This is known as The Fundamental Attribution Error.

It's deemed an ‘error’ because the bias to assign a weight to the individual clearly comes at the expense of noticing obvious situational factors. In order to study it, researchers have created a scenario similar to the description of the professor described above. Enter The Quiz Show Game.

The Self-Made Man and The Fundamental Attribution Error

The setup is simple. Three participants who enter the lab are randomly assigned to one of three roles in the experiment: The Quiz Show Master, the Quiz Show Player, or the Observer. The Quiz Show Master has the fun task - they get to think up the most impossible questions for the Quiz Show Player to try and answer. It’s their job to stump the Quiz Show Player. The Observer simply watches.

The Quiz Show Master can pick any questions they want - the more difficult the better, things that only they know. For example, the Quiz Show Master might ask what the name of his 1st-grade teacher is, their Mother’s maiden name, or their uncle Jim’s favorite saying. The Quiz Show Player is a total stranger with an impossible task, but it’s nonetheless their job to try and answer correctly. In practice, as we might expect, they guess at random and get just about everything wrong.

The real experiment isn’t about how good the Quiz Show Player can guess, but rather, how the Observer interprets this scene. After watching this unfold for a good 10 minutes, they’re asked who they think is more intelligent. Reliably, the Observer will state they think the Quiz Show Master is the smarter of the two! When asked, the Observer will respond with statements like, “Well, The Quiz Show Master seems like the confident one; the Quiz Show Player didn’t seem too bright”.

Photo by Trung Thanh via UnSplash
The Quiz Show Study provides an interesting window into the psychology of attributions
Source: Photo by Trung Thanh via UnSplash

The Quiz Show Player just stumbled and fumbled for the last 10 minutes, desperately guessing at these impossible questions. But what’s shocking is the degree to which people reliably interpreted this to mean that this actually indicates something enduring about their personality. In other words, they completely neglected the obvious contextual factors that influenced the behavior.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Fundamental Attribution Error is seen especially in Western Europe and America. Generally speaking, cross-cultural studies have found that Americans, in particular, are more prone to self-serving biases. We automatically assume that if someone becomes wealthy, it must be a reflection of their core traits, not their circumstance. This is closely connected to the merit-based lens through which we see the ultra-rich, and their accomplishments. In this perspective, the rich must therefore deserve their riches.

To what extent can success be attributed to the person, above and beyond their circumstances, take credit for their successes?

This is part 1 of a 2 part series on The Psychology and Mythology of The Self-Made Man. Part 2 focuses on the role of luck and circumstance, and the benefits of recognizing the role these play in one's success.

This post also appeared on the consumer psychology blog, MJISME


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Frank, R. (May, 2016) Why Luck Matters More Than You Might Think, The Atlantic

Granot, Y. and Balcetis, E. (2013). Fundamental Attribution Error. In The Encyclopedia of Cross‐Cultural Psychology, K.D. Keith (Ed.).

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