Trevor Hancock: Poverty and the Olympian fallacy

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

I was not surprised to receive feedback from a couple of readers objecting to the conclusion of my column last week.

In it, I explained that economic growth was not the solution for poverty, partly because it does not work very well and partly because further growth of our existing economy is not possible in a finite world where ecosystems are already becoming overwhelmed.

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Instead, I wrote, we need redistribution of income — and, I should have added, power and resources — from rich countries to poor countries and within countries, from rich people to poor people.

Both readers wrote that they had worked hard and had a university education. One noted: “People have to have the desire, focus, and strength to change. Changing social standing, from my experience, is a personal choice,” while the other wrote: “I remember well talking to my parents when I was a kid growing up, it was made clear to me that if any wealth was going to be distributed it should be up to the individual, certainly not the state.”

Both of these responses have aspects of what I call the Olympian fallacy, something we sometimes hear from Olympic athletes and other high achievers: I worked hard and was very successful, so you can do the same. The implication, of course, is that we all have an equal chance and if you don’t succeed, it’s your own fault.

But the argument is fallacious for two major reasons. First, we are not born equal because we differ genetically. Some people are bigger, faster or stronger than others because they got the right genes.

Of course training helps, as does dedication to that training, but having the right genes also helps. And its not just genes for physical attributes, but also for psychological traits, which are defined in the American Psychological Association’s dictionary as “an enduring personality characteristic that describes or determines an individual’s behaviour across a range of situations.”

Thomas Bouchard, a psychologist, geneticist and professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Minnesota, is known for his studies of twins who are separated and grow up in different environments, but with essentially the same genetic makeup. In a 2008 book chapter, he noted that “genetic variation is an important feature of virtually every human psychological trait and must be taken into account in any comprehensive explanation [theory] of human behaviour.”

In a 2004 article, he reported the genetic influence on personality — including such traits as extroversion, agreeableness or aggression, conscientiousness, neuroticism, openness, positive or negative emotionality and constraint — is about 40 to 50 per cent, while it is about 36 per cent for vocational or occupational interest. Genetic factors also play a significant role in mental ability and social attitudes. You can see how this might affect your ability to succeed.

Interestingly, he reports that the genetic influence on some traits vary with age, with genetic influences on mental ability and social attitudes such as conservatism and religiousness being low in young people, but increasing with age — meaning that socio-environmental influences on young people can counteract a genetic predisposition.

This points to a second major problem with the Olympian fallacy; it’s not just nature, it’s also nurture — our environment matters. We all experience different cultural, socio-economic and physical environments growing up, and these conditions influence the choices available to us.

Add to that mix factors such as colonization, dispossession and racism, or on the other hand inherited wealth, and the scales are tipped further, one way or the other. Then add in slum housing, oppressive governments or employers, resource depletion and an economic system that, left to its own devices, leads to wealth moving up, and you can see why we don’t all have an equal chance.

This is not to deny the role of the individual who is determined and works hard — although remembering that there is a significant genetic influence on personality at work. But it depends also on where you start from and the opportunities you have, it’s not all down to the individual.

Which is why a fair, just and compassionate society will try to level the playing field by redistributing wealth, power and resources to those most in need.

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