None of us, having achieved success in whatever realm, wants to think that it was the product of the circumstances that set us up for success, as much as it was our smarts, hard work, and brilliant application essay. And once we take sole credit for our own achievements, that in turn inclines us to see those who have not succeeded similarly as deficient and therefore responsible for their own failure. Social psychologists have described as the fundamental error of attribution our tendency to overweigh the importance of character traits and attitudes, and undervalue the importance of circumstances, in assessing others’ behavior. When it comes to our own, on the other hand, we take credit for our successes but attribute our failures to outside forces beyond our control, a phenomenon known as the self-serving bias. Taken together, these tendencies play out in successful people taking credit for their own success and blaming the less successful for their plight. Besides being a fundamentally human inclination, this is also a profoundly American one—our desire to confirm our national mythology about Horatio Alger stories, bootstraps-up-pulling, and every individual’s ability to make it, if only he or she works hard enough and is smart enough.
Why do we think this way, even in the face of clear evidence that circumstance, rather than individual choice, is a significant factor? One answer that psychologists offer, which seems highly relevant to this case, is our desire to see the world as just. In a just world, good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to people who have it coming to them. To make sense of our world, we want to impose order and rationality (which justice provides) on it, which is why we find zaddik ve-ra lo (the suffering of the righteous) so fundamentally disturbing. I would further suggest that there is another phenomenon at work here when we are on the fortunate end of the equation. Rather than see our good fortune as arbitrary and unearned, which might then force us to think in uncomfortable ways about those who are less fortunate than we are through no fault of their own, viewing our good fortune and their lack thereof as a function of our being better, smarter, harder-working justifies why we are in the position that we are in, and protects us from unsettling thoughts about those who are less well off.
Rivka Press Schwartz, “Privilege, Perspective, and Modern Orthodox Youth” in The Next Generation of Modern Orthodoxy, ed. Shmuel Hain (New York: The Michael Scharf Publication Trust of the Yeshiva University Press, 2012), 26-27.