Worldbuilding Premise

I have a world that faces a social engineering problem. It needs to reward its hard working and talented inhabitants, but it must also minimize the degree of arrogance amongst its elite. This is somewhat of a sensitive subject for us Earthlings. While nothing is by any means proven at the empirical level, there are still a handful of anti-meritocratic backlashes ongoing in continental Europe as well as in Southeast Asia. To supplement the post with some basic information, I will list the strengths and criticisms of meritocracy in the form of a few optional paragraphs below:

Real World Analog [optional]


Being a loser in a meritocratic society is not as painful as being a loser in an openly unjust society. -- John Rawls.

There is clearly a "straw man" element to the quote, (no one is lobbying for an unjust society, it's just that some are unfortunately born into them), but this is still a great quote and speaks to some of the desirable qualities of having a meritocratic-like system. Here is a summary of the advantages:

  • Rewards talent, motivation, hard work
  • nondiscriminatory (especially helpful for heterogeneous societies)


When you can’t understand why people behave in a certain way, the easiest thing to do is to convince yourself that people do not know what they are doing. -- Ivan Krastev

This quote, which is another one of my favorites on the subject, speaks to the undesirable effects of some groups of people thinking they are smarter than other groups. Particularly for us who use SE, a fairly meritocratic platform, this should be very easy to identify with ;) Just kidding (or am I?) Anyway, other criticisms include:

  • Instills arrogance among those who do well and desperation among those who do not
  • Mercenary syndrome: loyalty, patriotism comes second to results


If my world's society wants leading positions to be filled by the most talented individuals, but is apprehensive about instilling elitism, how can the world accomplish that? This is a very broad question and probably impossible to answer. To narrow the scope, let's simply help the world take the first step: how can it implement an "arrogance metric?"

The world wants to hedge their society against the rise of elitism and pompousness that is often associated with meritocracy, but before it may do so, it first needs to have a red line. That's where the "arrogance metric" comes in. The world will use this "arrogance metric" as part of a majority voting system to act as a disincentive to being arrogant. (subjectivity explained below)

If you want to go the extra mile, you may also frame your answer in the context of hypothetical laws, policies, incentives, punishments, ect.

Note: Remember this is world building. Although the question is political in nature, we shouldn't get too weighed down by real world dilemmas: corruption, political will, ect. Think of new policies or social apparatuses that may not even exist yet. Keep it realistic though. Just don't say aliens will come and vaporize anyone who gets arrogant.

Further Clarifications:

  • Clarity: Arrogance metric should be intuitive
  • Quantifiable: Arrogance metric should also be able to be quantified somehow (as best as current/near future technology allows for)
  • Subjectivity: While one person's arrogance is another person's self-esteem, there is a "eye of the beholder" situation. I have relaxed the objectivity requirement in favor of a system of majority rule. We must allow for subjectivity. If x members of said society flag someone for "arrogance" there should be a consequence -- even if that individual has violated no formal psychological threshold. So someone that is not clinically considered narcissistic (or other disorder) can still be considered "arrogant". The main point is arrogance isn't only subject to formal equations but also common sense; think general EQ.
  • Abuse: Under a majority rule system, the people could flag arrogance purely out of spite. Ideally the Arrogance Metric would be robust to abuse.
  • Communications Scope: Ideally the metric would account for arrogant words as well as actions (nose held high in the air), but you may stipulate in your answer which your metric is robust to
  • Modify only: we are still keeping meritocracy. Don't substitute it with a dictator or communism or something totally different.
  • Sector Scope: Both public and private sectors need to be held accountable
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    $\begingroup$ Communism is needed in order to start a meritocracy, otherwise you end with a world like ours, where rich children go to private schools and compete "meritocratilly" with children who cannot afford to go to even to a public school. At the very least you start banning private education, homeschooling, and adding a common minimun wage for everyone, even if they aren't working. $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    May 29, 2018 at 9:29
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    $\begingroup$ "Minimize the degree of arrogance amongst its elite": what is arrogance? Unless you provide an objective definition you are no better than any other garden-variety totalitarian. "If x members of said society flag someone for "arrogance" there should be a consequence": there was a great episode of The Orville explaining why this monstruous proposition cannot possibly work. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 29, 2018 at 10:06
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    $\begingroup$ Good question. Unfortunately. It's so good a question that all of humanity has been trying to answer this question for its whole existence without much success. Most major religions put a lot of effort into getting a message of humility across and still hasn't succeeded. $\endgroup$
    – Pingcode
    May 29, 2018 at 10:35
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    $\begingroup$ OK, the good, the bad, and the ugly. I'm going to join @Renan and VTR... BUT! This question is dang close to too broad. Answers should be VERY SPECIFIC and neither a lengthy discourse on society nor a rant for or against governing institutions. (You may also wish to read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged to discover why you can't avoid the elitism of a meritocracy, why a stratified caste is unavoidable, and why you need to allow it.) $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    May 29, 2018 at 19:58
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    $\begingroup$ You missed the greatest downside of meritocracy, no system for accurately and reliably measuring individual merit is known. In practice we always have to use some simpler proxy measurement which is an issue since a) that proxy is also affected by factors irrelevant to what we want to reward b) improving the proxy measurement directly is more effective way to success than improving your real performance. Meritocracy also suffers from the peter principle, ie promoting people on merit will tend to promote them away from jobs they excel at. $\endgroup$ May 29, 2018 at 22:46

3 Answers 3


The Arrogance Metric will be gamed

...just like every other metric used in a meritocracy. Extremely savvy social climbers will know about the metric and know how to appear humble but are really insufferably arrogant. Usually, meeting doing well on some metric involves costs. Some people will be able to easily pay those costs, do well on the metric and have time to do amazing things on side. However, 'cheaters' might not have those resources so they will optimize for the metric and sacrifice all other capabilities. Thus, according to the metric, you have highly qualified people but in real life, they do horribly.

The primary problem is that whatever you attempt to measure isn't the same as what you want to measure. For example, our current Western education system emphasizes standardized tests to show proficiency. However, answering questions on a test doesn't mean you can reason about a subject, merely that you can take tests well. Grades are supposed to mean you're smart and do good work but that hasn't held true at Harvard. Compound this with the well know axiom, "In theory, practice and theory are the same. In practice though, they're totally different."

Elitism is exceeding useful

You actually want some elitism in your high performing cadres. I can't think of a top performing group in any arena, auto racing, military, academic, software, athletics that doesn't think they are the best. They may actually be second place or third place but they think they are first. The feeling of being the best means that teams or individuals will push really hard to maintain their edge.


Perhaps what you mean by elitism is the characteristic of those in power to not care as much or at all about the poor people in the society. The only way to do this is to minimize wealth inequality and income inequality. If the rich/powerful think of the poor/powerless as 'Other' then there isn't much to stop the exploitation of the poor. Note that much of human moral outrage depends on calculations of in-group-ness. If something bad is done to someone in your group, you will be outraged. If it happens to someone far away and not like you, it's much more difficult to become outraged and take action.

How to achieve low levels of inequality is the answer to another question. ;)

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    $\begingroup$ Well that's a new spin on it, at least from my research anyway. Thanks for brining a fresh perspective. $\endgroup$ May 29, 2018 at 16:55

Differenciate hard-working from "naturally gifted*. It has been suggested, from example in Participatory Economy that rewarding natural gifts is useless, since no matter how much you motivate me I cannot become more or less naturally gifted. On the other hand, if you only reward hard work (or, as put in Participatory Economy effort and sacrifice, you probably will not get a lot of arrogant people on top, but instead a continuous variation between the laziest-and-poorest and the hardest-working-and-richest. The evaluation of the "hard work" happens under constant peer review as suggested in the answer of alex2006, by the way.

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    $\begingroup$ What would society gain from proting a hard-working dullard over a lazy innovator? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 29, 2018 at 10:16
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    $\begingroup$ I think the question is rather: can we do better than paying a high salary to lazy innovators, just because they is naturally productive? Why reward natural talent that cannot be stimulated anyway? The idea (not mine, but valid at least for fiction) is to reward all lazy people equally, to stimulate them to work hard, and save the maximum salaries for people that are working to their maximum potential. $\endgroup$ May 29, 2018 at 10:37
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    $\begingroup$ "Better" is a weasel word unless its meaning is defined explicitely and the audience agrees with the speaker's axiology. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 29, 2018 at 11:40
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    $\begingroup$ Rewarding natural talent ensures that those with the best breeding traits have the resources to have children. On evolutionary timescales, this is desirable. $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    May 29, 2018 at 14:20

Constant peer reviewing might be a solution for your problem. Arrogance - in the sense of considering oneself 'better' than one's peers and perceiving them as unworthy of being treated equally to oneself - is typically connected with non-cooperative behaviour. Therefore, the simplest way of judging arrogance is making people work in groups and judging their behaviour within such a group. If every person you work with is also the someone participating in your judgement of behaviour, cooperative behaviour is strongly enforced opposed to a pure merital system where a single persons outcomes alone are the basis for their standing.

Such a peer validation need not only be internal by people within the work group, but can also be external by people observing the group with the specific goal of judging the group members' arrogance behaviour. This will work, as long as nobody knows when the external evaluation is actively performed and when their normal work routine is in place. Again ooperative behaviour is strongly enforced opposed to a pure merital system.

In order to make this measure statistically robust, you will require a lot of evaluations from almost every person someone encounters. You may view giving a rating to every person you interact with for more than 1 minute as a basic civic duty like not littering parks ot the like. As soon as you have enough data, you can also detect 'outliers', when someone wishes to downrate a person on purpose out of jealosy, revenge or other dishonest and unfair motives which could lead to to their own downrating of the "arrogance" score.

  • $\begingroup$ That's a neat way to approach it, and it seems like it would scale well too. I appreciate the statistical angle in particular. $\endgroup$ May 29, 2018 at 9:35
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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the panopticon. You do understand that the system you propose will instantly degenerate into a mass of slaves ruled by whoever is running the Benevolent Facebook of Totally Non-partisan Democratic Objective Statistics Against Arrogance? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 29, 2018 at 10:14
  • $\begingroup$ "Who watches the watchers?" is your main concern. This is the main problem with Social media, as they exist nowadays and as you propose them. They mainly exist, because technology developed much faster than society and people's perception of morale and ethics in handling these media. A societal change however can only be implemented, if everyone in your society receives education for an 'ethical behaviour' with these media and only after such an education is allowed to participate in it under above-mentioned regulations. You do not want people driving cars without a licence either. $\endgroup$
    – Alex2006
    May 29, 2018 at 11:10
  • $\begingroup$ Scientific research is all about peer reviewing... yet the degree of arrogance among researchers cannot be characterized as "low". Also, this reminds me of an episode of Black Mirror: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nosedive $\endgroup$ May 29, 2018 at 12:38
  • $\begingroup$ Scientific work is peer-reviewed for its scientific quality by 2-4 people which is a small sample and the focus is not the personality of the researcher. Who but the people you interact with can judge whether you behave arrogantly or not. The fact that any system which requires human interaction can be exploited does not make it useless. With still use locks although they can be picked. $\endgroup$
    – Alex2006
    May 29, 2018 at 12:47

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