Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

I don’t want a lot, I just want more than he has

November 15th, 2010

Let’s pretend you live in a world just like this one, with prices exactly as they are. (This should not require much imagination.) You have a choice between two jobs that are identical except that one has an annual salary of 50,000 of your local currency (dollars, pounds, euros, bars of latinum) and the other has an annual salary of 100,000 of the same currency.

Tricky decision? Probably not.

Now, still in the same world, you have another choice of jobs. One pays 50,000 in the same currency, but the average worker in that company and community earns 25,000. The other pays 100,000 but the average worker earns 200,000. Would you still make the same choice?

A 1998 survey by Sara Solnick and David Hemenway asked exactly this question and found that about half the respondents would take the lower-paying job as long as the people around them earned less than they did. Other studies have found similar results.

Bob Kerr, or "mine's bigger than yours"Many assets and characteristics are viewed this way, particularly physical attractiveness and intelligence: most people would rather have average looks and intelligence in a world of below-average peers than be above average and surrounded by the gorgeous and brilliant.

It isn’t solely a result of envy. As Solnick and Hemenway wrote of their survey respondents,

“Many seemed to see life as an ongoing competition, in which not being ahead means falling behind. In their view… a higher relative standing leads to such desirable outcomes as access to better jobs and education, improved marital prospects and the opportunity to pass these advantages to one’s children.”

As I’m sure you know, marketers use this tendency relentlessly in an effort to convince consumers to increase their consumption. It’s more difficult to think of ways to apply it to world-changing endeavours, but it’s possible.

For example, if you’re a non-profit organization trying to attract talent to a job that doesn’t pay much, it might help to mention it if the average salary in the organization is less than you’re offering. For that matter, any unpopular role or situation should attract more interest if you point out that the person accepting it is rewarded just a little more than his or her peers. (“Hey, it’s hard work, but our perks are better than everyone else’s perks.”)

Of course, the reverse applies too: if you know that your volunteers aren’t getting the same rewards as others, remind them of other factors that make their participation meaningful. Just knowing that this peer-comparison effect exists can help when you’re choosing how to describe something you’re offering.

I’d love to hear more suggestions. Personally, I just realized that I use a variation on this approach every time I call my parents since I always open with, “Hi, it’s your favourite eldest daughter!” I figure they’ll put up with me being, well, me, if I remind them that they’re talking to the very best eldest daughter they have. (They haven’t hung up on me yet – I think it’s working.)

2 comments on 'I don’t want a lot, I just want more than he has'

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  1. Rob

    15 Nov 10 at 12:36 pm

    You may need to add a section to these posts: the Odd Duck, meaning wacky folk to whom this lesson will not appeal. Two things:

    1. I do not wish to inspire feelings of envy, nor do I wish to feel them myself. Advertising rushes past me all the time with this. Competition with others is not healthy when one’s only real measure of success is one’s own potential; it’s better not to engage at all.

    2. It’s been my experience that if I’m the smartest, most interesting and best-looking person in a room I’m in the wrong room.

    It is also true that I am left handed and my hair points toward magnetic north every morning, so these points may be peculiar to me.


    Carol Reply:

    I wondered if anyone would call me on that; you’re quite right that this tactic can’t be easily used by anyone who prefers not to promote competition (and an upcoming post will address how to get from competition to cooperation and why it’s a good idea). However, I believe that even an infrequently useful tactic should be publicized, if only for those rare circumstances where achieving one’s current goal is worth taking advantage of someone else’s pre-existing sense of competition. It’s hard to avoid means and ends.

    Also, I frequently see you in the wrong room, but since those are family gatherings, it’s not your fault.


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