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.
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.)