Mark D. White
Please excuse the flippant title, and get ready for a bit of a rant. (Listen--it's almost Friday, and it's been a rough couple of weeks.)
I'll start with a old joke: Two campers are in the woods when they spot a bear heading toward them. One camper starts running while the other bends down to carefully tie his shoes. The first camper yells back to his friend, "do you really think that will help you outrun the bear?" The second camper yells back, "I don't need to outrun the bear--I just need to outrun you."
I was reminded of that joke when reading a Real Time Economics blog post at The Wall Street Journal's site a couple weeks ago about a recent study on "last-place aversion." In the paper (available here), the authors report on experiments in which the participants were found more likely to take gambles that might boost their social ranking (rather than certain payoffs of equivalent expected value), and to forego costless action to help those worse off than themselves, the lower in the ranking they were to begin with. The authors use these results to support individuals' aversion to being at the bottom of the social ranking, preferring to have at least one person or group to look down upon.
I don't doubt the findings or the interpretation, but they sadden me. In fact, the entire concept of relative preferences and well-being disturbs me and always has. The idea that many (perhaps most) people base their feelings of satisfaction and happiness on what the folks next door have rather than on their own needs and desires--assuming they even have their own needs and desires--is ironically and tragically counterproductive in the aggregate. (On this I agree with Robert Frank, though not on his policy recommendations based on it.)
Maybe this unconscious desire to one-up our peers has an evolutionary basis--it would certainly seem to inspire a striving for material (and thereby reproductive) success--but it also seems to vary widely on cultural grounds (being much more pronounced in the U.S. than in Europe, for instance). (I thank Dr. Maryanne Fisher for her insights on this point.) But just because it's natural doesn't make it good or right--thank you, G.E. Moore--and just as we strive to counter other hardwired inclinations toward prejudice and oppression toward others, I would hope we would reject those which represent an attitude of disrepect toward ourselves.
It strikes me as horribly inauthentic to subsume your own standards of well-being, happiness, and satisfaction for other people's, especially if it leads to a counterproductive "race to the top" in which no one's intrinsic preferences are satisfied. I said as much here about two years ago (focusing on status goods like Starbucks coffee, which I now drink regularly, thanks to the same Dr. Fisher), so I won't rehash those arguments. Nonetheless... argh.
Don't get me wrong, researchers in psychology and economics do us a great service in highlighting these unconscious dispositions. But where are the voices crying out to restrain them, to orient our decision-making more towards activities that will satisfy our desires rather than simply make us feel good compared to our neighbors? Dr. Frank decries what Thorstein Veblen termed conspicuous consumption, certainly, but he focuses policy changes such as steeply progressive tax rates to "solve" the problem. This is to treat the symptoms rather than the disease (as behavioral economists are wont to do). Once we recognize our flaws we don't have to take them as given--but we have to make the effort.
And we shouldn't want for the people next door to do it first.