Compared to What?

I read an interesting book at the beginning of the year, the Armchair Economist by Steven E. Landsburg. I picked it up because I enjoyed another book he wrote, More Sex is Safer Sex. I have to admit, there is something to be said for a title grabbing your attention, especially when it has sex in it but purports to be a book on economics. Both books explore everyday situations from an economic perspective. I’m going to guess lots of people would disagree with many of Landsburg’s conclusions and might even find some of them offensive; like certain people having more sex makes us all a little safer or how we might be better off putting computer hackers to death rather than some murderers. Agree or disagree, his books are thought provoking and much more interesting that traditional economics where they typically just chart supply and demand.

I don’t agree with all of Landsburg’s theories and that’s what prompted this post. In the Armchair Economist he wrote about a game college students could play to learn about life. He concluded writing, “They [students] would learn that your success in life is measured not by comparison with others’ accomplishments but by your private satisfaction with your own. They would learn that in the Game of Life there can be many winners, and one player’s triumphs need not diminish anybody else’s.”Oh if we only lived in such a world. But the reality is we don’t and that’s evidenced by the fact that dissatisfaction quite often comes because we compare ourselves to others. We are a world full of “haves and have nots” and that causes problems. The Apostle James addressed this nearly 2000 years ago when he wrote, “You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel.” (James 4:2-3) All this taps into what Robert Cialdini calls the contrast phenomenon. Everything is relative based on what you compare it to and how you position that comparison. The key is to understanding this is to ask, “Compared to what?”For example; you might be perfectly happy with your salary…until you find out the person sitting in the cubical next to you makes $10,000 more! On the flip side you might be unhappy with your pay…until you learn you’re the second highest paid person in your position in your department or company. Compared to what?Or maybe you’re happy with your car because it’s so much nicer than that old clunker you were driving. You were perfectly happy…until you saw your neighbor’s fully loaded brand new BMW. Compared to what?I saw a commercial for the
movie Hall Pass that illustrates this well. In one scene a group of guys are staring at a group of girls. One girl stood out because she was taller and prettier than the others. Then one of the guys tells the others, “Tall blonde, right here. She surrounds herself with less attractive women to make her look like a 10.” As the guys move their hands so they can’t see the other girls the tall blonde doesn’t look so hot after all. Of course the film makers use make up to emphasize the point but don’t think there aren’t some people out there who wouldn’t purposely hang out with other less attractive people just to stand out. Compared to what, or who?We would do well to always ask ourselves what we’re comparing to and whether or not it’s a valid comparison or the best comparison. For example, I heard on a conservative news channel the Illinois state legislature was considering a 66% increase in the state income tax. Wow, that should be cause for revolt in this economy! But here’s the perspective from the other side; the state income tax would only go up 2 percentage points. And here’s where both comparisons come from; the tax will go from 3 percent to 5 percent. That’s 2 percentage points, a 66% increase. I’m sure those opposed to the tax talked about a 66% increase whereas those in favor focused on the 2 percent change. Both are valid and both will elicit completely different responses! Compared to what?
I wrote a blog post last year called The Secret to Happiness where I shared this bit of wisdom, “Happy is the man who wants what he has.” Happiness comes not from looking at others and desiring what they have but looking and what you have and learning to appreciate it. Always remember to ask, “Compared to what?”
Brian, CMCT
Helping You Learn to Hear “Yes”.


2 replies
  1. matt gordon
    matt gordon says:

    Nice review Brian.
    I was wondering if this is something that you think this book would draw teenagers into dialog? The reason for asking is that globally, I think our educational system puts us at an unfortunate compared to what disadvantage. We are woefully underprepared as a society.

    Your compared to what analogy brings to light the fact that we need to compare the weakest link rather than the best. Our educational system seems to value media attention, acquiring depreciating assets rather than appreciating and our debt laden society is built around maintaining debt rather than financial independence.

  2. Brian
    Brian says:

    I know I talk to my daughter about choices, comparisons, etc. I shared long ago that I could have made more money but that would have entailed more time away from home and her than I was willing to give. Ultimately our choices reveal what's most important to.


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