# Stephen Hicks, Ph.D.

Philosopher
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## Anecdote: comparing yourself to others

I came across this report of an “experiment at Harvard University’s School of Public Health in 1995. In it, a group of students and faculty were asked to choose between earning $50,000 per year while everyone else earned$25,000 — or earning $100,000 per year while others made$200,000. The researchers stipulated that prices of goods and services would be the same in both cases, so a higher salary really meant being able to own a nicer home, buy a nicer car, or do whatever else they wanted with the extra money. However, the results showed that those materialistic perquisites mattered little to most people: Fifty-six percent chose the first option, hypothetically forgoing \$50,000 per year simply to maintain a position of relative affluence.”

Wow. A majority would rather be worse off — as long as everyone else is even worse off.

We make fun of those driven to keep up with the Joneses, most people find Peter Keating to be a repulsive character, and psychologists warn of the danger to one’s self-esteem in making inappropriate comparisons. But there are apparently a lot more deep comparers out there than I thought.

The experiment highlights the difference between (a) those whose goal is make their own life objectively the best it can be, and (b) those whose goal is to be relatively better than others.

What if we tried the experiment for intelligence? Choose the scenario you prefer:
(a) Your IQ is 120 while everyone else’s is 100.
(b) Your IQ is 140 while everyone else’s is 180.

By analogy from the income survey, 56% would rather be stupider as long as those around them are even more stupid.

Or if we tried it for sex:
(a) You have sex twice a week while everyone else has it once.
(b) You have sex three times a week while everyone else has it five times.

Would the 56% choose less pleasure as long as others get even less pleasure too?

The morally healthy attitude is to want more pleasure in your life — and what’s going on in others’ bedrooms really isn’t your business. The same for wealth and intelligence or any life-enhancing asset: the more you have of them, the more you’re in a position to live your own life better.

As for comparing ourselves to others: the morally healthy thing is for the comparisons to be benevolent learning opportunities:
* Others have achieved more than I have in some respects? Good for them, and is there something I can learn from them to improve my life?
* Others have done less in some respects? I hope they do better in the future, and did they make mistakes I should avoid?
* Or in a competitive situation: What are my competitor’s strengths and weaknesses, so I can prepare my best strategy?
* Or a cooperative situation: What are everyone’s strengths and weaknesses so as best to divide the labor among us?

But maybe the 56% result above — and I don’t mean this as a cheap shot — is a function of the moral subculture among the students and faculty at that one institution.

## 5 Replies

1. Sep 2nd 2012

Reminds me of an old Russian story I read years ago. The Devil appears to a man and says “I will grant you any wish. You may have anything you want. Wealth, power, women. Anything at all. But whatever I give you, I will give twice as much of the same thing to your neighbor.” The man thought for a while and then said “I wish you to blind me in one eye.”

2. Psychological tests are often too simplistic to be meaningful. Someone making half as much money as everyone else is not generally going to fit in with any part of the society, except for narrow interactions. Being comfortable in some part of society is of great value. Thinking, imaginative people will be aware of such considerations when presented with supposedly limiting thought experiments.

The idea that the money supply and people’s choices will not affect prices over time creates a false reality for consideration – nonsensical. In any case, choosing a situation where I am better off does not hurt anyone else. Choosing a situation where everyone else is significantly better off does hurt me socially. Not to mention being an objective reflection of my adequacy – assuming money is earned.

A situation of having half the intelligence would isolate you even more. Standardized frequency of sex is nonsensical as well. Besides, what is important is the quality of sex, not the frequency. Further, there is much more to sexual interaction than organisms. Such factors cannot be successfully ignored while attempting to pose such limiting questions.

No one wants everyone else to be worse off than they are themself, but choosing to be significantly worse off than everyone else, regardless of any reasonable living standard adjustment, is isolation. Even anti-self-esteem? Difficult to see how this could be made into a gain in quality of life.

A better question: “Would you rather be a big (wealthy/important) fish in a small pond (community), or a little (poor/unimportant) fish in a large pond (community)?” Here the subject can imagine the broader experience of the large pond, with possibility of personal growth and achievement over time. I imagine most people would choose life in the large pond – and take their chances?

However, generations emerging from the education system in the last few decades seem increasingly to wish to settle for being small fish who are provided for . . . somehow. Intellectual scope and self-esteem are not hallmarks of our age.

3. Sep 3rd 2012

I found the whole inquiry irritating - like what the hell has this to do with anything? I relate to the freedom I have to create, choose and act to obtain what I want. If I’m short on some resource, then the first piece of the plan is going to focus on how to get more of that resource so I can obtain what I want - or give up what I want. The point is, I’m not thinking comparatively to someone else. My thinking is related to what I want to accomplish.

If my freedom is restricted - either politically or by my resources - then I get cranky. That’s one of the physical signs it’s time for me to expand my freedom.

4. Sep 3rd 2012

We should all be janitors (in spirit).

My IQ is:

2\sin\left(\frac{108^\circ}{2}\right) = \phi

Very small yes, humble yes, but truth is in the small.

One could probably sense more as a “blind little fish in a small pond”.

5. I have sex twice a week.
I would do four times a week if it is with the neighbor;
but that frequency would last only for a month, till both
of us are tired of the new dullness.