No one likes to think – much less accept – that they have achieved an important achievement in their life while enjoying an unfair advantage. Most of us like to believe that we have earned it hard, with the sweat of our brow, overcoming obstacles and growing every day.
However, the evidence shows the opposite: many people advance thanks to special privileges. But because this is an uncomfortable prerogative, many of these people develop what is known as “advantage blindness.”
What is advantage blindness?
Researchers at Hult International Business School found that when people achieve certain power, they often develop a kind of psychological blind spot that prevents them from seeing their impact on others. They called this phenomenon “advantage blindness” since these people do not feel privileged.
Despite enjoying a certain status or primacy, they do not perceive that they are particularly advantaged. In fact, the researchers point out that “We are not always aware or do not feel comfortable admitting these advantages.”
Profession, gender, ethnicity, age, appearance, accent and many other factors determine our life history and, at the same time, “Convey different levels of status and authority, depending on how they are socially constructed in a specific context.”
For example, those who live in stable countries do not feel privileged for not having to think about their physical safety every day, and those who can walk freely hand in hand with their partner do not think about the privilege that this could mean in places where it is not well seen or even prohibited.
These researchers also perceived that in a management meeting, men do not realize the ease with which they can convey their message, because they are given due attention, while women are more often ignored, even when expressing the same idea in the same situation.
When someone has advantage blindness, he/she does not feel privileged. In fact, he/she does not even notice that this special treatment is not normal since it is not provided to everyone. Instead, these people are more likely to believe that their success is due solely to hard work and personal talent, without considering that certain characteristics, from gender to appearance to ethnicity, may have given them an advantage that others do not have.
A level playing field?
We all like to think that life is fair because that idea gives us a certain security. Thinking that if we work hard we will be successful, or that if we are good people only good things will happen to us, allows us to give some order to a world that is quite chaotic and unpredictable.
For that reason, it is easier to blame those who have not been successful for their laziness or lack of abilities than to assume that life is unfair. It’s more comforting to think – and it even feeds our ego more – that everything we’ve ever had is because we’ve earned it on a level playing field. We feel better and more secure when we believe we have what we deserve. And vice versa.
However, due to deep inequalities and even our own personal differences, the truth is that we are not playing on a level playing field. The truth is that sometimes chance also does its part, so it would be much more sincere to recognize that some advantages – or their intelligent use – have helped us get to the point we are at.
One way to detect those advantages to which we normally remain blind is to broaden our vision of the world by assuming a more empathetic attitude. Empathy is what allows us to connect with others to realize that not all of us have had the same opportunities. We often don’t understand another’s experience until we open up and allow it to touch us closely. Listening to their experiences will allow us to put ourselves in their shoes and perceive the advantages that we have been able to have and that others have been denied.
That obviously does not imply feeling guilty. On the contrary, it is actually a reason to experience gratitude. However, it is also an occasion to recognize and address the systemic advantages and disadvantages that we all experience daily, each in a different way.
And if we have some social influence or hold some position of power, being aware of that advantage blindness can help us reduce its bias and create a slightly more level playing field for everyone. After all, enjoying certain advantages also implies a responsibility for those who do not have them.
Reitz, M. & Higgins, J. (2021) Speaking truth to power: why leaders cannot hear what they need to hear. BMJ Leader; 5: 270-273.