I am always fascinated by studies into human behaviour.
Especially when it shows that most people make illogical decisions which are based more on biases emotions than what is best for the person.
One which I recently came across was especially fascinating.
In a 1998 survey experiment by Solnick and Hemenway, 257 participants were asked what they would prefer in a theoretical world when comparing yourself with others, and were asked to choose between two options you would rather have.
One example is around how much salary you would prefer to earn, knowing what others in your organisation would earn:
- A: Your current yearly income is $50,000; others earn $25,000
- B: Your current yearly income is $100,000; others earn $200,00
In both cases, the value of the money is the same.
If you think of the two options in a logical way, the obviously correct answer is to choose option B. In B, you earn twice as much as in A ($100,000 compared to only $50,000).
What other people earn has nothing to do with what you can spend your money on. So even if someone else is earning $200,000, in that case you are still earning $100,000, twice as much as $50,000.
Yet that is not what people did.
The results: approximately 50% of the participants chose option A.
This means they would rather live in a world where they earned half of what they could, as long as they were earning more than other people
This is fascinating to me.
It clearly shows how many of the decisions we make every day are based more on gut feelings and emotions rather than something which has been thought through.
In this case, it also appears to show how important relative status and standing is for a person’s sense of self. As we humans are such a social species, we are especially aware of how we fit into society and what our place in it is.
Any changes which decrease our standing in society (where we are ranked lower than other people) may therefore be seen as a threat, whereas anything where we are ranked relatively higher than other people is seen as beneficial and desirable.
This may help explain why when assessing new ideas of someone else, these ideas are seen as less desirable, since it is not clear what outcomes they may create for the person making the decision.
It may therefore also explain why in organisations, people prefer to keep the status quo, where they know their relative position to others. Any changes in the status quo may result in other people overtaking them, which is emotionally undesirable.
So while you may be surprised by the results of the experiment, there is an evolutionary reason behind it.
What about you? Which option would you have chosen, and why? Let me know in the comments below.
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