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.
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.