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The Myth of Hard Work: Reciprocal Effects of Parental Meritocratic Beliefs and Educational Performance in China

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Different research traditions have long stated that parental meritocratic beliefs motivate children’s educational achievement. However, sociologists often argue that meritocratic narratives legitimize and make sense of societal inequalities as justly deserved. Using the case of China, I tested simultaneously these two competing hypotheses of the relationship between parental meritocratic beliefs and children’s educational achievement. In particular, I distinguished parental beliefs about hard work and skills as predictors of higher grades. I analyzed data from the first and second waves of the China Educational Panel Survey (CEPS). Autoregressive cross-lagged structural models indicated that parental meritocratic beliefs do not affect the educational performance of children. Instead, meritocratic beliefs are affected by academic results suggesting a justificatory role of them. This pattern is much sharper in rural China, where traditional Chinese culture is preserved. The implications of meritocratic beliefs for a broader discussion of citizens’ beliefs about social inequalities and stratification were discussed.
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The Myth of Hard Work: Reciprocal Effects of Parental Meritocratic Beliefs and
Educational Performance in China
Francisco Olivos*
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Orcid 0000-0001-6395-6593
Acknowledgment
The author acknowledges the support of the Hong Kong PhD Fellowship Scheme.
*Corresponding author. Email: fjolivos@link.cuhk.edu.hk. Tel: (852) 39436625. The
corresponding author will share all data and codes for replication purpose upon request. All
procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the
ethical standards of the institutional and national research committee and with the 1964
Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.
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The Myth of Hard Work: Reciprocal Effects of Parental Meritocratic Beliefs and
Educational Performance in China
Abstract
Different research traditions have long stated that parental meritocratic beliefs motivate
children’s educational achievement. However, sociologists often argue that meritocratic
narratives legitimize and make sense of societal inequalities as justly deserved. Using the
case of China, I tested simultaneously these two competing hypotheses of the relationship
between parental meritocratic beliefs and children’s educational achievement. In particular,
I distinguished parental beliefs about hard work and skills as predictors of higher grades. I
analyzed data from the first and second waves of the China Educational Panel Survey (CEPS).
Autoregressive cross-lagged structural models indicated that parental meritocratic beliefs do
not affect the educational performance of children. Instead, meritocratic beliefs are affected
by academic results suggesting a justificatory role of them. This pattern is much sharper in
rural China, where traditional Chinese culture is preserved. The implications of meritocratic
beliefs for a broader discussion of citizens’ beliefs about social inequalities and stratification
were discussed.
Key words: meritocratic beliefs, China, educational achievement, legitimation.
Introduction
Meritocratic narratives, such as the American Dream, are becoming less effective as
collective myths (Lamont 2019). In modern societies, meritocracy is a principle that provides
the basis for reward allocation based on achievement rather than ascription (Mijs 2016b; Tsay
et al. 2003; Young 1958). Defenders of meritocratic ideals (Herrnstein and Murray 1996;
Saunders 1995) indicate that it serves two purposes: first, it enables to allocate efficiently
scarce resources and, second, incentivizes effort. However, unequal and underserved starting
positions lead to the understanding that meritocracy violates its own merit principle. It
legitimizes societal inequalities as justly deserved, and misfortune becomes a personal failure
(Mijs 2016b). However, the cross-national and comparative efforts of legitimization
researchers have not come along with longitudinal evidence to rule out bidirectional effects
(Mijs 2016a, 2019). Either way, those competing perspectives could apply to different
experiences of social mobility, professional career, educational achievement or any sort of
success. In this context, this study is aimed to test these two perspectives simultaneously in
the case of the Chinese educational system: How do parents’ meritocratic beliefs and
children’s educational performance are affected by each other? By understanding the role
of parental meritocratic beliefs in the educational system we closely examine how
meritocratic beliefs shape and are shaped by success in society. It is not an attempt to set
aside the relevance of meritocratic beliefs in China but to better understand their relationships
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with Children educational performance. In addition, I examine how this dynamic varies
between rural and urban China as an important cultural cleavage.
This question arises from classical discussions in the sociology of culture regarding
the relationship between culture and action (Frye 2012; Lizardo et al. 2016; Schwarz 2018;
Vaisey 2009). However, as Vaisey and Valentino (2018) diagnose, beliefs are usually
sidelined by cultural sociologists. Indeed, meritocratic beliefs could be understood as
narratives if we applied the operationalization of culture provided by Small, Harding, and
Lamont (2010). Narratives are causally linked sequence of events in people’s minds (Small
et al. 2010:16) and the classical definition of meritocracy is where success is predicted by
non-ascriptive characteristics such as effort, intelligence, and non-cognitive skills. Therefore,
parental beliefs about meritocracy are narratives of how rewards are allocated in the
educational system. Hence, by discussing the reciprocal effects of parental beliefs and
educational outcomes we engage in a broader discussion about culture and action literature.
Moreover, parental meritocratic beliefs could be considered as cultural orientations of their
parenting (Weininger, Lareau, and Conley 2015), being consequential for inequality and
social reproduction.
This article makes several contributions to the literature. First, we test simultaneously
two competing hypotheses about the role of parental meritocratic beliefs in the educational
system. It is enabled by a theoretical rationale and rich longitudinal data. Understanding
meritocratic beliefs as narratives, a dual-process model of culture (Vaisey 2009; Vaisey and
Lizardo 2010) is applied to derive reciprocal effects hypotheses. Sociologists usually state
that meritocratic narratives legitimize inequalities (e.g. Lamont 2019; Mijs 2019), taking
distance from motivational arguments. However, it has not been accurately tested. Thus, the
two waves of the China Educational Panel Survey allow using autoregressive cross-lagged
structural models for disentangling the theorized reciprocal effects.
Second, the Chinese case is a unique setting for studying meritocratic beliefs.
Paradoxically, there is no equivalent word to meritocracy in Chinese. It is often translated as
elitism (英才教育), which ignore its antecedents. However, Chinese culture has longstanding
meritocratic principles, grounded on mainstream Chinese philosophies, mainly the
Confucian tradition. It bonds educational institutions and examination to qualifications for
highly-valued civil service jobs (Hannum et al. 2019). The selection of public servants based
on both the moral character and talent has been attributed to the earliest period of Chinese
history (Xiao and Li 2013). Folk tales of hard work, such as Kuang Heng’s story, illustrate
how meritocratic beliefs have permeated Chinese society. Heng was a poor kid who lived
during the Han dynasty. His family could not afford candles for studying at night. Because
of his commitment to become a civil servant, he used light coming from his neighbors’
houses. Thus, through hard work, he reached the position of emperor’s hand. In addition, a
recent study has shown (Mijs 2019) that Western countries with higher inequality tend to
explain success in meritocratic terms. A similar conclusion has been drawn for Latin
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American countries (Bucca 2016). In the case of China, a high level of inequality (Xie and
Zhou 2014) and social fluidity (Zhou and Xie 2019) by international standards bring the
justificatory role of meritocratic narratives, alongside his hypothesized motivational effect,
into sharper relief. We incorporate the Chinese case in the literature of meritocratic beliefs
by focusing on the educational system.
Finally, this study specifies differences between attributional beliefs regarding skills
and hard work. Critics of the role of meritocracy argue that meritocratic beliefs contradict
themselves. People have different starting points, and through meritocratic principles, they
are signified as deserved (Mijs 2016b). A large body of evidence using twins’ studies has
shown that family and genetic endowments affect cognitive and non-cognitive skills (Daw,
Guo, and Harris 2015; Felson 2014; Nielsen 2006; Pokropek and Sikora 2015; Teachman
1997). Taken together, this literature suggests that family nurtures the development of skills.
Nevertheless, nobody chooses the family where one is born into. Most of these studies are
built upon the strong assumption that there is no assortative mating, which ultimately may
affect genetic endowments. Henceforth, we could critically examine meritocratic beliefs
independently. Thus, this study seeks to explore the consistency of both components of
meritocracy -skills and hard work- and their potential heterogeneous relationships with
academic performance.
This article is structured as follows. First, we discussed the theories and evidence
supporting the role of parental beliefs as motivators of better educational performance.
Second, the literature critical on that motivational hypothesis is developed. Third, the dual-
process of culture model is introduced in order to integrate both perspectives theoretically
and derive hypotheses. Fourth, based on the theoretical reasoning the analytic strategy is
presented. Fifth, data and methods are introduced. Sixth, the results are reported. Finally, the
conclusion discusses these results in relation to the theoretical reasoning of the first sections
and the implications of meritocratic beliefs for a broader discussion of citizens’ beliefs about
social inequalities and stratification.
Meritocratic beliefs as motivation
Parental beliefs exert a large influence on children's beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. As Frye
argues: "familiar slogan can enter into cultural models and shape individual cognition" (Frye
2012:1592). Theories in sociology and social psychology enable to state that parents’ beliefs
about meritocratic assessments and reward could promote motivation and effort. As we will
show in this section, several studies have suggested that meritocratic beliefs drive schooling
behaviors and outcomes.
Studies in stratification and the sociology of education have incorporated culture into
the explanation of inequalities in educational outcomes. Scholars use a motivational
argument to explain the superiority of Asian Americans and the lower performance of black
students in comparison to white youth in the United States. Asian Americans perform better
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because of cultural beliefs that promote a strong connection between hard work and
achievement (Chen and Stevenson 1995; Hsin and Xie 2014; Liu and Xie 2016). Meritocratic
beliefs are understood in this framework as cultural orientations that explain the Asian-white
gap. Parental beliefs of this sort set high educational expectations for their children and
enhance educational achievement. Similarly, Oppositional Culture Theory (Ogbu 2003)
explains the underperformance of Black Americans as a strategy to avoid being labeled as
“acting white”. Through this adaptative cultural response, black youth alienate themselves
from dominant institutions and decrease their educational performance. Harris (2008)
proposed that these beliefs link structural conditions to individuals’ schooling behavior.
Beliefs operate as antecedents of students’ actions. Indeed, one of the four items measuring
perceived value of schooling is a straightforward measure of meritocratic beliefs:
achievement and effort in school lead to job success later on (Harris 2008:616). His
findings indicate that the value of schooling, which includes meritocratic beliefs, predicts
achievement and college enrollment of students. Thus, beliefs in the value of schooling are
mechanisms through which structural opportunities influence students’ behaviors.
Different theories in social psychology support the effect of meritocratic beliefs on
educational outcomes. Bandura’s Self-Efficacy Theory (Bandura 1997) proposes that
efficacy beliefs influence the level of effort, persistence, and choice of activities. Even though
they are not narratives, they are frames about students themselves and it posits meritocratic
principles in direct relation with their own potential. Among resources of influence on self-
efficacy beliefs, parents are prominent. First, through social model they provide vicarious
experiences. Parents’ success fosters one’s own beliefs about capabilities to succeed. Second,
social persuasion affects self-efficacy beliefs through reaffirmation of capabilities for
mastering given activities. Children verbally persuaded mobilize greater effort and sustain it.
Therefore, it is plausible to think that parental meritocratic beliefs could influence children’s
educational outcomes.
Meritocratic beliefs are causal attributions without a specific subject. They refer to
how society allocation rewards. Thus, meritocratic beliefs as the motivation of achievement
are related to the classic Weiner’s (1989) attributional model of achievement motivation, one
of the most influential theories of achievement-related behavior (Glasgow et al. 1997). In this
model, causal attributions generate affective reactions and expectations for future scholastic
success which guide academic behaviors and tasks. Indeed, causal beliefs about effort and
ability are considered producing the most optimal responses. Both beliefs are internal to the
students (locus) and, in the case of effort, it is volitional (controllability) and could change
over time (instability). Internal, controllable and changeable causes have been found
affecting educational performance (Van Overwalle and De Metsenaere 1990; Perry et al.
2010). Overall, theories in social psychology and the role of culture on ethnoracial disparities
suggest that parental meritocratic beliefs may enhance children’s educational performance.
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Meritocratic beliefs as justification
Researches in sociology often put the motivational hypothesis upside down. They argue that
individual status predicts positively the endorsement of meritocratic beliefs because of the
legitimation of their superiority through a narrative of success (see Bucca 2016). Moreover,
high-status individuals (high-income and those who enjoy s high subjective status) will refuse
beliefs that challenge their social position (Kreidl 2000). Thus, instead of endorsing structural
explanations of the social stratification, they will endorse individual explanations, such as
effort and abilities. Since parents with high-performer children could be understood as
winners of the educational systems, we can apply the prediction of the social status literature
to educational performance.
In the legitimation hypothesis, the study of elites has discussed the role of meritocratic
beliefs in justifying educational choices. Khan (2011) provides a detailed account of how
meritocratic beliefs work on obscuring social advantages. Through an ethnography at St.
Paul’s School, one of the most prestigious boarding elite high schools in the United States,
the author shows how beliefs about hard work and belonging to the institutions are used by
parents, students, faculty members, and staff to justify the privilege.
The case of Stan in Khan’s (2011) ethnography perfectly illustrates how meritocratic
beliefs frame success as deserved. Stan is a student who considered he worked hard to study
at St. Paul’s. He explains his ascension in the chapel through hard work. At the schools’
chapel, every seat is defined by hierarchical rules where seniors seat closer to the altar. He
interprets his ascension through ideas of merit and work, and not as the natural flow of every
student at St. Pauls School. However, as Khan (2011) acknowledges, every student does it,
and just of few of them do not complete their schooling or drop out. In sum, this draws an
important conclusion to the study of inequality. It is seen as “fair” because the privilege or
certain structural position is believed to be products of effort or capabilities. Therefore,
inequalities are justified, maintained and obscured. In this case, meritocratic beliefs are post
hoc rationalizations of action and objective conditions.
Beyond the particularism of ethnographic approaches in the sociology of elites and
the exceptional case of St. Paul’s School, it suggests the plausibility of legitimation of action
and educational outcomes by meritocratic beliefs. Moreover, an important effort has been
done in sociology to generalize the role of meritocratic beliefs as legitimizing inequalities.
Based on the theory on the heterogeneity and homogeneity of social structure, and by using
data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Mijs (2016a) showed
that ability-tracking shapes attributions of failure. Students in more homogeneous groups
(mixed-ability class) are more likely to attribute their failure to meritocratic factors. Namely,
(lack of) hard work and academic (in)ability. Thus, stratification provides a context for
cognitive processes that legitimizes educational inequality. Students make sense of their
scholastic failure based on their position in the educational stratification. The same role has
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been suggested for meritocratic beliefs legitimizing inequality at the country-level (Bucca
2016; Mijs 2019).
Taken together, the research indicates that meritocratic narratives are justifiers of
success and social inequalities. Thus, this literature enables us to suggest that parental
meritocratic beliefs could justify students’ academic performance.
Integration of reciprocal effects
The culture-as-rationalization approach criticizes the traditional understanding of culture as
guiding action by ends and values (Swidler 1986). Instead, this approach conceives culture
as providing a repertoire of justifications that limits and make-sense of the available possible
strategies of action (Swidler 1986, 2001). This fashionable upside-down of the sociological
tradition was sustained by the observation that people seldom give consistent explanations
of their behavior (Swidler 2001). Therefore, culture could not motivate action.
However, advances in cognitive science have echoed in sociology (Lizardo et al. 2016;
Vaisey 2009) to revendicate the motivational role of culture in his dual-process model, which
is compatible with the practice theory in sociology (Bourdieu 1986; Ortner 2006). In
cognitive science, there is a great interest in the analytical division between two systems
underlying human reasoning, which has led to propose that humans have two minds (Evans
2003): a system that is automatic and unconscious (Type I), and another that is conscious and
controlled (Type II). With the former, people automatically respond to stimuli by using
internalized inputs at hand (Vaisey 2009). Thus, culture can shape institutions and action
through the unconscious mind as well as providing useful repertoires of strategies.
Hence, the dual-process model of culture proposes that individuals are both influenced
by internalized cultural schemas and capable of rationalizing when it is required by social
interaction (Vaisey 2009; Vaisey and Lizardo 2010). This model enables an investigation of
how parental meritocratic narratives shape children's educational performance, as well as
how parents simultaneously rationalize academic success as meritocratic. Parental beliefs
about meritocracy are semantic knowledge as impersonal propositions about the world. They
are part of the declarative culture of parents (Lizardo 2017). In a dual-process model, children
may store these beliefs in their non-declarative semantic memory. Parental beliefs may be
adopted as part of children’s cognitive schemas. It is highly possible since parents are
significant others in the process of socialization and their attributional beliefs about
children’s success are highly consequential for their educational achievement (Murphey 1992;
Tõeväli and Kikas 2017). At the same time, they could make sense and rationalize children's
academic achievement through meritocratic beliefs. Henceforth, reciprocal effects of
performance and meritocratic beliefs are theoretically plausible:
H1a: Students with parents holding beliefs about hard work as a predictor of
academic achievement will have better educational performance.
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H1a: Students with parents holding beliefs about skills as a predictor of
academic achievement will have better educational performance.
H2a: Parents of students with better educational performance are more likely
to hold beliefs about hard work as a predictor of academic achievement.
H2b: Parents of students with better educational performance are more likely
to hold beliefs about skills as a predictor of academic achievement.
The relevance of this theoretical reasoning and the analytical strategy proposed in the
following section could be illustrated with the recent evidence presented by Mijs (2019). His
study aims to explain the paradox where citizens of the most unequal countries believe that
their society is the paragon of meritocracy. By using data from 25 years of the International
Social Survey Program, he shows that inequality is legitimated by meritocratic narratives.
However, “it could be that the relationship between beliefs and inequality goes in the other
direction(Mijs 2019:16) or both in a dual-process. Insofar declarative meritocratic beliefs
could become internalized dispositions, they could explain positions in the social structure,
which is manifested in different levels of inequality. The same problem is encountered when
examining the relationship between academic success and parental meritocratic narratives,
which is a criticism of cultural explanations of ethnoracial gaps (Lizardo 2017). Parental
beliefs may be encultured by children to affect their actions. Therefore, if parental
meritocratic beliefs are coupled with children dispositions that foster scholastic achievement,
we expect a stronger effect of meritocratic beliefs when parent-child relationships provide
the conditions for that acquisition of culture. Therefore, we hypothesize the following
difference between groups:
H3: the effect of parental meritocratic beliefs on educational performance will
be stronger for children with a close relationship with their parents.
Moreover, due to the rapid economic growth and urbanization in China, one of the most
important cultural cleavages is the rural-urban divide. About 40 percent of the total
population in China resides in rural areas (World Bank 2018), and they live basically an
agricultural life. Hence, unlike global Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, rural areas
preserve traditional values (Chen and Chiu 2010; Fuligni and Zhang 2004; Wu 2017). Filial
piety, loyalty and self-sacrifice and a general Confucian mode of consciousness (Yang et al.
2006) still explain individual beliefs, attitudes and behaviors in rural areas. In addition,
besides promoting thrift and respect for authority, Confucian values also advocate for
educational achievement and hard work (Lim 2003; Stankov 2010). Lee (1999) pointed out
that in the Confucian tradition the emphasis on the effort is explained by a strong belief in
achievement for all people, and the attribution of failure to lack of willpower. Internally,
education is important for personal development. Externally, education is a driver of social
mobility in an egalitarian sense: you can achieve if you want(Lee 1999:36). In addition,
this faith in the effort is coupled with the belief that educational success is not only seen as
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an individual achievement but is also associated with family honor (Peng 2019). Thus, in
rural areas, parental meritocratic beliefs may have stronger efficacy and are salient cultural
repertoires for making sense of achievement. Consequently, this literature leads to
hypothesize:
H4a: Reciprocal effects of meritocratic beliefs and educational performance are
stronger in rural areas than urban areas.
However, modernization theories state that ascribed characteristics weaken their
effects on status attainment, increasing the effectiveness of individual achievement in this
process (Treiman 1970). In this context, the modernization of China could also cultivate
norms, values, and beliefs consistent with this meritocratic understanding of the development.
Past studies have shown that the level of meritocracy in certain countries predicts the support
toward meritocratic principles, as well as a more advantaged individual social position
(Bucca 2016; Duru-Bellat and Tenret 2012; Kunovich and Slomczynski 2007). Individuals
realize and internalize the idea that meritocracy explains rewards in rationalized and modern
societies. Therefore, modernization makes meritocratic beliefs available to make sense of
success in urban areas and motivation action that promote better performance. A competing
hypothesis is derived:
H4b: Reciprocal effects of meritocratic beliefs and educational performance are
stronger in urban areas than in rural areas.
Analytic strategy
From the theoretical reasoning presented in the previous sections, we encounter the challenge
of testing reciprocal effects. Autoregressive cross-lagged panel models (ACLPM) are a
specific type of structural equation model (SEM) that can be used if two or more variables
have been measured longitudinally, and the interest is on their reciprocal effects. It has been
used to disentangle theorized reciprocal effects in different settings and fields, such as
informal social control and crime (Wickes and Hipp 2018), human capital accumulation and
physical health (Kane et al. 2018), academic failure and adolescent drinking (Crosnoe 2006),
just to mention a few. Like any SEM, ACLPM allows us to include both latent and observed
variables. Moreover, the standardization of coefficients enables to compare effects between
paths.
As Huijsmans and colleagues explain (2019), two kinds of effects could be estimated
by means of ACLPM. First, autoregressive effects examining the average stability of a
variable from one period to the next within students. For instance, the autoregressive path
from beliefs about skills in time 1 to beliefs about skills in time 2 shows how stable this belief
is between these two waves of the panel. These effects are represented by the continuous
lines in Figure 1.
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Second, cross-lagged effects indicate the effect of a variable on another variable that
was measured on the next occasion. These effects represent the theoretical hypotheses of
motivational and justificatory effects of meritocratic beliefs. They are represented by dotted-
lines and dashed-lines in Figure 1, respectively. For example, the effect of educational
performance on parental beliefs about hard work refers to the justification path for that belief.
Due to the inclusion of the autoregressive effects, this path is independent of the belief in
time 1. This makes possible to rule out that the effect of academic achievement on beliefs is
simply because these variables are correlated in the first measurement occasions. Henceforth,
controlling cross-lagged effects by autoregressive paths enables to test the direction of the
potential causality. In addition, dash-dotted lines represent reciprocal effects between
meritocratic narratives, which are aimed to test the consistency of these beliefs in our context.
Lastly, covariances are included for all the variables in the same period.
For the sake of simplicity, control variables at time 1 were omitted from the figure
and are specified in the next section. Following a standard procedure in ACLPM (Allison
2002; Hawkins, Amato, and King 2007; Huijsmans et al. 2019), we relied on full information
maximum likelihood estimation (FIML) rather than a listwise deletion of cases as in a
traditional regression approach. This method provides better estimates of the parameters in
comparison to listwise deletion where missing data are assumed to be at random. Dummy
variables (hukou, migrant status, male, urban, close relationship) are specified as exogenous
variables, which means that cases with missing values on these measurements are excluded.
We use a weighted least square parameter (WLSM) estimator for binary outcomes
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. This
estimator has been suggested (Muthén and Muthén 2010) for models where there is at least
one binary outcome (non-normally distributed).
Data & Methods
We analyze data from the first and second waves of the China Educational Panel Survey
(CEPS). The sample is comprised of 10,279 seventh graders surveyed in 2013-2014 with a
follow-up in eighth grade. This survey is a longitudinal, large-scale probabilistic and
representative sample of seventh and ninth graders from 438 classes of 112 schools in 28
counties in mainland China. Out of the 10,279 seventh graders in the baseline, a total of 9,440
students were surveyed in the follow-up in eighth grade. The total attrition is about 8.16
percent of the original sample. Our analyses only consider parents’ questionnaire answered
either by the biological father or by the biological mother. Therefore, our final analytic
sample are 9,163 observations.
Main variables
ACLPM uses variables that are both predictors and outcomes at different time points. First,
parents were asked, among a list of factors, whether “the extent of hardworking” and “talent
1
Models are estimated using WLSMV estimator, which is also suggested for binary outcomes. Although both
produce similar results, WLSM yielded a better fit than WLSMV.
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and capability” have effects on students’ grades, where 1 signifies yes and 0 no. These are
parents’ narratives about hard work and skills, respectively.
Second, educational performance is measured as a latent variable based on the class
rank in Math, Chinese and English mid-term exams for each year. We compute students’
ordinal rank -the higher the rank, the higher the grades- as their decile in each exam
distribution of the classmates. Since the absolute rank measure does not account for different
sizes of the class, the decile rank (Ω) is standardized to class size:
𝑖𝑐𝑠𝑡 =𝛼𝑖𝑐𝑠𝑡 − 1
𝑁𝑖𝑐𝑠𝑡
𝑋 10 (1)
where, α is the absolute rank of the student i within class c and school s for wave t. Therefore,
each subject class rank varies in a range from 0 to 10, where 0 refers to the student on the
bottom of the distribution and 10 to the students on the top. Thus, each unit of increase or
decrease means a change of 10 percentiles. Factor loadings indicate a positive and strong
relationship between the latent variable performance and our three observed measures in each
wave.
Control variables
As we mentioned, several control variables were included from the survey baseline as
exogenous and endogenous variables. First, three binary indicators are included as exogenous
in the models. A dummy variable indicating whether the student is male (1 = yes, 0 = no),
because there is evidence which suggests gender differences in the effect of parental beliefs
about success on children skills (Mägi et al. 2011). In addition, binary indicators denoting
whether the student holds agricultural hukou (1 = yes, 0 = no), geographic area of schools (1
= urban, 0 = rural), and migration status (1 = yes, 0 = no). These variables have been
suggested as important resources of educational disadvantages in China (Hannum et al. 2019;
Tam and Jiang 2015). Finally, I use a dichotomous indicator of the parent-child relationship
where 1 denotes those children declaring a “very close” relationship with the parent who
responded to the questionnaire. Thus, 0 grouped children with a “not close” or not too close
nor too far” relationship.
An additional block of five endogenous control variables was included in the model.
First, two predictors aimed to control by objective conditions of skills and hard work beliefs
are included: cognitive ability and average hours spent on homework. The cognitive ability
is measured by a raw cognitive ability test score estimated based on an item response theory
model. It assesses students’ aptitudes through a 22-items test on reasoning and problem-
solving, which must be answered in up to 15 minutes (Zhao et al. 2017). Besides the logic
effect on academic performance, previous studies have shown a consistent relationship
between children’s cognitive performance and parental beliefs (Sigel and McGillicuddy-De
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Lisi 2002). Regarding homework, students answer “How much time did you spend on
homework assigned by your teachers at school last week? The hours spent from Monday to
Friday are added to the hours spent on weekends. We do not consider minutes because of the
unreliability of this measure. A logarithmic transformation of this variable is used. Second,
the age of the student which is aimed to address children’s development. Third, the
educational level of the father and mother assumed as continuous in a range from 1 to 9,
where the former signifies “none” and the latter “master’s degree or higher”. Both mother
and father’s educational level are suggested as varying the path from parental beliefs to
children outcomes (Sigel and McGillicuddy-De Lisi 2002). Fourth, the number of siblings
(counting the respondents) addressed the effect of sibship size on educational outcomes
supported for the Chinese case (Lu and Treiman 2008).
Results
Before reporting the hypotheses testing, Table 1 shows the descriptive statistics involve in
the analyses. As expected, the mean value of class rank in every middle term for waves 1 and
2 is around the percentile 50th. Regarding meritocratic beliefs, there is an important
descriptive result to be highlighted. For each wave, parents agree in a large proportion that
hard work is a predictor of better academic achievement. Eight of each 10 parents believe
that students who invest higher effort will obtain higher grades. In contrast, the proportion of
parents who considers that skills lead to better performance is smaller. Three of each 10
parents believe that talent and capabilities are predictors of better academic achievement. It
suggests that beliefs about hard work and skills do not go hand-in-hand in the Chinese context.
It is confirmed by low unweighted tetrachoric correlations when students were 7th grade (r =
0.16) and 8th grade (r = 0.23). Table 1 also reports the proportion of parents who changed
their belief between wave 1 and wave 2. About 22 percent of the parents changed their
endorsement of hard work as a predictor of success, while 36 percent change their belief
about skills. Both are substantive proportions of change. Descriptive statistics of control
variables are reported in Table 1A of the appendix.
[Table 1]
Table 2 reports the results of the cross-lagged model testing the hypotheses of the dual-
process of parental meritocratic beliefs. In addition, this model includes stability paths and
the relationships between meritocratic beliefs (consistency path). Overall, the goodness of fit
indexes indicates that our model fits the observations accurately (RMSEA= 0.033,
CFI=0.958, TLI=0.914)
2
. Standardized and unstandardized coefficients are reported. Binary
2
The weighted root mean square residual (WRMR) index is considerably above the cut-off point of 1
(WRMR=1.516). Although this could suggest problems of fit, several studies consider WRMR as an
experimental fit and recent evidence shows that it is highly sensitive to sample size (DiStefano et al. 2018). To
assess its sensitivity to the sample sizes, we draw eight random subsamples from the original sample with
different sample sizes ranging from 9000 to 2000 cases. For samples below 4000 cases, WRMR goodness of
fit is below 1 and the substantive results regarding our theoretical hypotheses are supported across samples. A
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outcomes are reported in log-odds. The standardization of variables predicting binary
outcomes also addresses the limitations of logistic regressions pointed out by Mood (2010).
Sociologists usually ignore that logistic regressions are biased by omitted variables that are
unrelated to independent variables, unlike linear regressions. Therefore, coefficients across
models in the same sample are incomparable. Doing so requires a y-standardization (Winship
and Mare 1984), which divides the coefficients by the standard deviation of the latent variable
for each equation of the structural model (sdY*). These standardized coefficients are reported
in Table 2 for binary outcomes. First, stability paths show divergent results for educational
performance and meritocratic beliefs. Every variable in wave 2 is significant and positively
related to its value in wave 1. However, while educational performance is highly stable (β
=0.687, p<0.001), lagged effects of beliefs about hard work (β=0.345, p<0.001) and skills
(β=0.328, p<0.001) are smaller. It suggests a substantive degree of variability between waves.
Table 2 also reports the relationship between meritocratic beliefs. If the classic
conceptualization of merit as a function of effort and skills is accurate, a high association
between meritocratic narratives is expected. Although they have a positive and significant
relationship, the effect size is smaller in comparison to other paths. Parents who believe that
hard work leads to better educational performance are 1.16 (OR = exp(0.150)) times more
prone to hold beliefs about skills. In a similar fashion, parents who believe in skills as a
predictor of academic success are 1.10 (OR = exp(0.098)) times more likely to be hard work
believers. As well as descriptive statistics, it indicates that beliefs about hard work and skills
as predictors of students’ success work differently in the Chinese context.
Finally, Table 2 reports the results for the hypotheses testing of the dual-process of
meritocratic beliefs. The last column indicates that neither parental beliefs about hard work
nor about skills are significantly related to educational performance in wave 2. Parental
meritocratic beliefs do not influence children’s educational performance. Henceforth, these
results do not support motivation hypotheses (H1a and H1b). Conversely, educational
performance in wave 1 is a significant predictor of narratives about both hard work (β=0.105,
p<0.001) and skills narratives (β=0.028, p<0.01). These coefficients could be expressed in
terms of odds ratios as a magnitude of their effect size. They indicate that an increase of 1
standard deviation in the class rank of educational performance leads to an increase of the
likelihood of holding hard work beliefs in 1.12 times, while for beliefs about skills it is 1.03
times. The difference in magnitude between these two coefficients is a straightforward
indicator of a substantive effect on hard work beliefs, but not on attributional beliefs about
skills. The Wald test for the difference between these two justificatory effects supports that
claim (p<0.001).
[Table 2]
more robust test of this would be the estimation of a large number of random samples for each sample size.
However, this option is not current available in Mplus 7.
14
Nevertheless, although the justificatory paths are significant, the formal test of the
difference between the motivational and justificatory effects is not significant. Thus, we
cannot conclude strongly that for the China case, meritocratic beliefs have a more
justificatory role than motivational. Table 3 reports a formal test of the difference between
motivation and justification path in Panel A. The justification role of attributional beliefs
about hard work (educational performance → hard work belief) is not significantly different
(p>0.05) from its motivational path (hard work belief educational performance) as suggest
by Wald chi-square test. Similarly, the justification path for beliefs about skills (educational
performance → skills belief) is not statistically different (p>0.05) from its motivational path
either (skills belief educational performance). Finally, Panel B shows that the effect of
educational performance on narratives about hard work and skills are heterogeneous. The
justificatory effect of educational performance on the belief about hard work is stronger than
the effect on the belief about skills for the Chinese context. Therefore, hard work and skills
narratives do not go hand-in-hand in this dual-process of parental meritocratic beliefs.
In addition, an additional model is estimated where motivational paths are constrained
to zero (skills belief educational performance; hard work belief educational
performance). The goodness of fit indexes for this model improved slightly in comparison
with the previous model (RMSEA=0.030; CFI=0.958; TLI=0.927). This is another argument
for disregarding the motivational effects of parental beliefs on performance.
Overall, the findings indicate that parents’ meritocratic beliefs do not have a
significant effect on children’s educational performance. However, educational performance
has significant effects on both beliefs about hard work and skills as predictors of children’s
achievement. Therefore, parents’ meritocratic narratives justify educational performance.
[Table 3]
We tested the robustness of our results against different specifications of the
educational performance. First, since the tracking process at the secondary level has relevant
consequences for students’ educational attainment in China (Anderson et al. 2016; Ye 2015)
and comparative evidence has supported its effects on student’s causal attributions (Mijs
2016a), we used grade rank instead of class rank. Through this measure, we avoid the
possibility of class sorting. As shown in Table 2A in the appendix, the main effects are
confirmed and in a similar magnitude. Second, we used the parental subjective assessment
of children’s performance. Parents were asked: How does this child’s academic record rank
in his/her class at present?. Their answers could rank from 1 to 5, where 1 signifies “Near
the bottom” and 5 “Around the top”. Once again, Table 3A in the appendix confirms our
results. In this case, the belief about hard work increases the subjective assessment of
children’s performance (B=0.087, p<0.000) like the objective assessment. However, the
Wald test indicates that the justificatory path of hard work belief is stronger than its
motivational path (p<0.05, X2=5.868).
15
In addition, following Hu (2018), we take advantage of unusual information provided
by CEPS, which allows us to restrict the sample to schools where their principals confirm the
random allocation of students across classes at their seventh grade, and no reallocation either
at eight nor ninth grades based on their achievement. Moreover, the third restriction is
established whether the homeroom teachers indicate no student tracking according to
academic achievement. Table 4A in the appendix suggests similar findings that the obtained
using the full sample. Therefore, we can conclude that our estimation is robust against
measurements of academic achievement and the effects of ability tracking.
Two additional analyses are conducted to understand the effect of the role of
meritocratic beliefs in the Chinese educational system (Table 4). First, the justificatory effect
of performance on beliefs about hard work is significant for parents with close (B=0.117,
p<0.001) and non-close relationships (B=0.067, p<0.05). For skills, it is only significant in
the case of close relationships (B=0.035, p<0.01). Although the magnitude of the effect is
larger for close parent-child relations, the difference is not significant. However, what is
important in this case is that the quality of the parent-child relationship does not influence
the potential motivational effect of meritocratic beliefs as stated in hypothesis 3. As a
propitious condition for the internalization of declarative culture, a close parent-child
relationship does not increase the motivational effect of parental meritocratic beliefs on
children’s educational performance.
Finally, the results regarding the competing hypotheses of Confucian tradition and
modernization theories are also reported in Table 4. Parental meritocratic beliefs motivate
action neither in schools of rural areas nor urban areas. Moreover, in both cases, higher
educational performance predicts the endorsement of the belief about hard work. A Wald test
of the difference between these two coefficients indicates that the effect is stronger in schools
located in rural areas (p<0.05, X2= 5.648). In addition, the justificatory effect of belief about
hard work as a predictor of success is stronger than its motivational effect (p<0.05, X2= 4.062)
in rural schools. This supports the Confucian tradition hypothesis (H4a) but specified only to
its justificatory effect.
The comparison of logistic regression is not only difficult between models as
mentioned before, but also across samples (Allison 1999; Williams 2009). The robustness of
the multigroup analysis requires to address the potential bias of unobserved heterogeneity
across samples. To assume that all the variables predict the outcome equally well across
groups (e.g. close/non-close, urban/rural) is unrealistic and difficult to support theoretically.
I use linear probability models (LPM) for each multigroup analysis as proposed by Mood
(2010). His simulations show that LPM coefficients are unbiased and consistent estimates of
a variable’s average marginal effect on P(y=1), which is not affected by unobserved
heterogeneity like logistic regressions. With these models, my conclusions are not
substantively altered.
[Table 4]
16
Conclusion and discussion
This study was aimed to understand the reciprocal effects of parental meritocratic beliefs and
children’s educational performance in China. The findings indicate that parental meritocratic
beliefs, defined as narratives of success, do not have an effect on the educational performance
of children. Instead, meritocratic beliefs are affected by academic results suggesting a
justificatory role of them. This pattern is much clear in rural China, where traditional Chinese
culture is preserved. In addition, this study sought to explore the consistency of two narratives
of meritocratic principles: hard work and skills. Our results indicate that in the Chinese case
they are slightly related, and only beliefs about hard work as a cause of success are strongly
used to make sense of better children’s educational performance. It is consistent with the idea
that Confucian tradition promotes willpower as a mean of success (Lee 1999), and that
abilities could be compensated with effort. For Confucius, any man might become a
“gentleman”, and in education should not be class distinctions (Creel 1953). The meritocratic
narrative in China is consistent with the so-called meritocratic component of meritocracy in
Western societies (Bucca 2016; Mijs 2019).
Another interpretation of the difference between beliefs about hard work and skills is
the difference established by the attributional theory (Weiner 1989) used to predict the effect
of beliefs on children’s achievement. Following the attributional argument, hard work should
have a stronger effect on achievement than skills, because in addition to be internal, it is more
controllable and changeable than skills. Therefore, it affects emotions and behaviors to a
larger extent. In the case of this study, the justificatory effect of hard work is stronger than
skills. Therefore, using hard work as a narrative of success enhance even more the
deservedness of the individual because it is much volitional than skills.
The findings have important implications on the growing research on citizens’
inequality beliefs (Castillo 2011; Hunt 2007; McCall 2013; Mijs 2019). We have shown that
the relationship between academic success and meritocratic beliefs is not bidirectional as
theorized, but rather are justifications of it. We have provided a longitudinal test of the
legitimation hypothesis suggested by this tradition. In a dual-process model of parental
beliefs, only culture-as-rationalization (Swidler 1986, 2001; Vaisey 2009) is supported. The
lack of effect of parental beliefs on children’s educational performance should not be
interpreted as the impossibility of motivating students. Instead, these findings suggest a
decoupling between parents’ declarative culture and dispositions of children which could
enhance educational performance. As Lizardo (2017) argues, a superficial understanding of
these cultural processes have lead motivational studies to a declarative culture bias (e.g. Hsin
and Xie 2014; Liu and Xie 2016). Further studies may address if parental beliefs fail to
motivate educational performance or it is a decoupling between declarative and non-
declarative forms of culture. Moreover, this research could be extended to take into account
other resources of meritocratic beliefs such as peers and teachers or success in the labor
17
market. It is particularly relevant because Confucian tradition is explicit about the internal
and external value of education, but not about wealth (Lim 2003). Thus, meritocratic beliefs
could have a different configuration when operationalizing success in a different fashion.
This study has also demonstrated the role of parental meritocratic narratives in an
East Asian country. To the best of our knowledge, it is the first study considering
simultaneously meritocratic beliefs and educational performance in this region. I do not
challenge the relevance of meritocratic beliefs in the Chinese belief system. Conversely, it is
supported as a dominant principle. Meritocratic selection of civil servants is widespread
across countries such as Korea, Japan, and China- provides the building block of an exam-
oriented educational culture (Hannum et al. 2019). In these countries, Confucian philosophy
led to long-lasting competitive pressures to families, schools, teachers, and students. In the
case of China, it has been responded by supplementary education (Liu and Bray 2017; Zhang
and Xie 2016), international opt-out (Liu 2018; Young 2018) and curricular reforms (Sargent
2009). However, the descriptive relevance of meritocratic beliefs in the belief system says
nothing about their relations with action. Meritocracy is a dominant principle, and parental
meritocratic narratives justify success in the Chinese exam-oriented system. Once upon a
time, Weber stated that every highly privileged group develops the myth of its natural
superiority (1978:953), and in China seems to be the myth of hard work.
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24
Note: Control variables and residual covariances are not included in the figure.
Figure 1. Theoretical relationships
25
Table 1. Descriptive statistics of main variables.
Variable
SD
N
Min
Max
Main predictors
Class rank in matht1
2.81
9,163
0
10
Class rank in matht2
2.87
9,163
0
10
Class rank in Chineset1
2.80
9,163
0
10
Class rank in Chineset2
2.87
9,163
0
10
Class rank in Englisht1
2.80
9,163
0
10
Class rank in Englisht2
2.87
9,163
0
10
Belief about hard workt1
0.38
9,064
0
1
Belief about hard workt2
0.35
8,284
0
1
Belief about skillst1
0.46
9,064
0
1
Belief about skillst2
0.48
8,284
0
1
Note: weighted statistics. Following Hsieh (1989), sample size and distributions of binary variables provide
sufficient statistical power for our estimations.
26
Table 2. Cross-lagged panel results for dual-process model of meritocratic beliefs.
Predictors at t1
Outcome variables at t2
BHW
BS
EP
B
β
B
β
B
β
(SE)
(SE)
(SE)
BHW
0.358***
0.345
0.150***
0.149
0.070
0.032
(0.036)
(0.029)
(0.040)
BS
0.098**
0.090
0.347***
0.328
0.028
0.013
(0.033)
(0.026)
(0.035)
EP
0.105***
0.197
0.028**
0.055
0.761***
0.687
(0.014)
(0.011)
(0.025)
Notes: BHW: Parents’ belief about hard work; BS: Parents’ belief about skills; EP: Educational performance.
Control variables are not reported. Dummy controls are assumed as exogenous to reduce missing data.
Standardized coefficients reported in log odds. *p<0.05, **p<0.01, ***p<0.001. Residual covariance between
t1 variables and endogenous controls are included. Model has been weighted.
27
Table 3. Wald chi-square tests for reciprocal effects and meritocratic beliefs differences.
Panel A. Reciprocal effects
Motivation paths
Justification paths
Predictor
Outcome
Predictor
Outcome
X2 Wald
Test (1)
P
BHW
EP
EP
BHW
0.969
0.325
BS
EP
EP
BS
0.000
0.991
Panel B. Meritocratic beliefs
Justification path of skills
Justification path of hard work
Predictor
Outcome
Predictor
Outcome
X2 Wald
Test (1)
P
EP
BS
EP
BHW
21.752
0.000
Note: BHW: Parents’ belief about hard work; BS: Parents’ belief about skills; EP: Educational performance.
28
Table 4. Multigroup analyses of motivational and justificatory paths.
Group
Close parent-child relationship
Geographic area of school
Yes
No
Rural
Urban
Dual-process
Path
B
B
B
B
Motivational effects
BHW EP
0.058
0.145
0.016
0.088
(0.045)
(0.082)
(0.058)
(0.055)
BS EP
0.054
-0.078
-0.011
0.052
(0.038)
(0.084)
(0.054)
(0.046)
Justificatory effects
EP BHW
0.117***
0.067*
0.138***
0.074***
(0.016)
(0.028)
(0.019)
(0.019)
EP BS
0.035**
0.005
0.028
0.023
(0.013)
(0.023)
(0.016)
(0.015)
Note: BHW: Parents’ belief about hard work; BS: Parents’ belief about skills; EP: Educational performance.
*p<0.05, **p<0.01, ***p<0.001. Model in Table 2 has been estimated for each group.
29
Appendix
Table 1A. Descriptive statistics of control variables
Variables
SD
Min
Max
Age
12.69
11
17
Male
0.53
0
1
Agricultural Hukou
0.62
0
1
Urban school
0.52
0
1
Migrant status
0.12
0
1
Mother's educational level
3.51
1
9
Father's educational level
3.88
1
9
Number of siblings
1.89
1
6
Cognitive skills test
-0.11
-2.03
2.33
Time spent on homework (logarithm)
6.76
2.30
9.22
Close parent-child relationship
0.76
0
1
Note: weighted statistics.
30
Table 2A. Cross-lagged panel results for dual-process model of meritocratic beliefs using grade
rank
Predictors at t1
Outcome variables at t2
BHW
BS
EP
B
β
B
β
B
β
(SE)
(SE)
(SE)
BHW
0.342***
0.329
0.143***
0.141
0.065
0.030
(0.036)
(0.030)
(0.039)
BS
0.093***
0.085
0.347***
0.328
0.055
0.024
(0.033)
(0.026)
(0.035)
EP
0.116***
0.221
0.030**
0.059
0.782***
0.703
(0.013)
(0.011)
(0.024)
Notes: BHW: Parents’ belief about hard work; BS: Parents’ belief about skills; EP: Subjective assessment of
educational performance. Control variables are not reported. Dummy controls are assumed as exogenous to
reduce missing data. Standardized coefficients reported in log odds. *p<0.05, **p<0.01, ***p<0.001. Model
fit: RMSEA=0.031, CFI=0.964, TLI=0.926. Residual covariances between variables within waves and baseline
controls are included. Model has been weighted.
31
Table 3A. Cross-lagged panel results for dual-process model of meritocratic beliefs using parents’
subjective assessment of student’ performance
Predictors at t1
Outcome variables at t2
BHW
BS
SEP
B
β
B
β
B
β
(SE)
(SE)
(SE)
BHW
0.367***
0.376
0.141***
0.140
0.087***
0.090
(0.036)
(0.029)
(0.017)
BS
0.103**
0.095
0.343***
0.324
-0.004
-0.004
(0.033)
(0.026)
(0.015)
SEP
0.163***
0.151
0.084***
0.080
0.713***
0.699
(0.026)
(0.021)
(0.015)
Notes: BHW: Parents’ belief about hard work; BS: Parents’ belief about skills; EP: Subjective assessment of
educational performance. Control variables are not reported. Dummy controls are assumed as exogenous to
reduce missing data. Standardized coefficients reported in log odds. *p<0.05, **p<0.01, ***p<0.001. Model
fit: Model fit: RMSEA=0.022, CFI=0.986, TLI=0.946. Residual covariances between variables within waves
and baseline controls are included. Model has been weighted.
32
Table 4A. Cross-lagged panel results for dual-process model of meritocratic beliefs using random
subsample
Predictors at t1
Outcome variables at t2
BHW
BS
EP
B
β
B
β
B
β
(SE)
(SE)
(SE)
BHW
0.361***
(0.058)
0.351
0.137**
(0.047)
0.136
0.055
(0.065)
0.026
BS
0.038
(0.053)
0.035
0.343***
(0.041)
0.326
0.047
(0.057)
0.021
EP
0.112***
0.211
0.049**
0.095
0.742***
0.686
(0.021)
(0.017)
(0.063)
Notes: N=3426. BHW: Parents’ belief about hard work; BS: Parents’ belief about skills; EP: Subjective
assessment of educational performance. Control variables are not reported. Dummy controls are assumed as
exogenous to reduce missing data. Standardized coefficients reported in log odds. *p<0.05, **p<0.01,
***p<0.001. Model fit: Model fit: RMSEA=0.032, CFI=0.966, TLI=0.930. Residual covariances between
variables within waves and baseline controls are included. Model has been weighted.
... In the ever-changing and fast paced world that has valued and emphasised the significance and implications of talent and hard work, which led to the achievement of success, as a major event that would occur in an individual's life, has been widely prevalent (Mendick et al., 2015;Biondo and Rapisarda, 2018;Olivos, 2019). This meritocratic idea of possessing a conventional framework of personal and professional success, mostly extrinsically driven, has been challenged and has undergone a series of advancements in the way importance is ascribed to cultivation of meaning in life (Baczko-Dombi and Wysmulek, 2015). ...
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