Opting out

26 april 2010 | In Happiness research Psychology | Comments?

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”The spirit level” made a big (and persuasive, though debatable) point of some well known effects: people tend to care about how they turn out in comparison with others. People tend to compare themselves to people who are better off than themselves. In some interesting cases, people tend to care more about their relative than their absolute level of income, for instance.

Status seems to matter. Almost every publication that covers this topic has a background section about the importance of status relations in the evolution of social animals. Ape’s are brought to the witness stand. De Waal is mentioned. One reason such a section is included is to make a point about the irrepressible presence of this factor in our lives. However we are to cope with the effects of status differences, the anxieties, hostilities and pointless loss of well-being it entails, we cannot get around it: it’s a brute, evolutionary fact. If people are made unhappy by inequality, then we should diminish inequality. Not only in terms of wealth, but in every regard that matters.

But the curious thing is that not everybody cares about status, whether in terms of attractiveness, wealth, knowledge or popularity. Some who are comparably less well off, and aware of this fact, are not bothered by it. Surely, though there are plenty of reasons to believe that diminishing inequality is usually the right thing to do, getting people to care less about inequality when it comes to things that doesn’t really matter should be part of the overall strategy as well. In related news, the detrimental effects of physical ideals derived from advertising and the like may be countered either by influencing their content, or by undermining their ideal-setting status.

One route goes via switching comparison classes: compare yourself to a group in which you come out better.

Another is by switching what is compared: some people have ”more money than taste”, for instance, so you could just switch the comparison that matters from money to taste and in the latter case, you come out on top. The great thing with this particular strategy is that taste is a matter of taste: two people can believe that they come out better in the comparison, and both feel better about themselves. Psychologists will often advise you to have a ”complex sense of self”, because if you have a number of personal characteristics that you care about, failure in one department doesn’t matter that much. In every group you find yourself, you are probably best in some regard, and you can choose to concentrate on that. Others may do the same, and no group has to decide which regard that matters in that group.

But the preferable strategy, it would seem, is often not to care about the outcome of comparisons at all. It doesn’t matter all that much who’s got the better car, or even the better sense, because feeling good about oneself isn’t necessarily a matter of comparison. You may be contented without being smug, even over the fact that you have cracked this particular code. Sure, we usually do compare in order to evaluate, but we don’t have to do this. We may ”satisfice”, pick an alternativ that is good enough, as well as ”maximize” as an overall strategy. Not just when it comes to particular products but as a general life strategy as well.

If wellbeing is to a significant degree and for most people dependent on coming out on top in comparisons, we should choose the kind of currency for comparison that makes the worst off less worse off. The great thing with money is also the problem with it: it buys stuff. If I have a lot of it and you got less I can buy the things that you need, and there is not much you can do about it. If I care for knowledge instead, for instance, and know more than you do, there is not less knowledge for you to get your hands on. The scarcity of job-opportunities aside, it’s hard to see why I should feel bad over the fact that you know more about philosophy and cognitive science than I do. And it’s certainly hard to see that the problem of academic jealousy should best be solved by making the ”top earners” know less, rather than by getting rid of this obsession.

The case for inequality is often based on the premise that we need something to aspire to in order to be motivated. If we can become better off by developing some talent or working harder, we just might do that. Surely, that kind of psychological mechanism exists, even though it isn’t the only game in town. The thing aspired to doesn’t have to be money, and the process does not need to be a zero-sum game.

Certainly, we need to take the problems of inequality and the tendencies mentioned seriously, as factual problems. But we shouldn’t take the psychological tendencies that constitute one of the conditions for these problems as brute, unchangeable facts.

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