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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Keeping up with the Chens

Every generation or so, great concern is raised by intellectual pundits in the know about how Americans are falling behind the rest of the world in intelligence, schooling, standard of living, competitiveness, and so forth. Thus relatively speaking, or in contrast to other cultural exemplars, we should not only be concerned that we are not keeping up with the Jones', but also with far away people with a lot of foreign sounding surnames.

Of course, others may and do retort that compared to a lot of other folks, live or dead, we are doing comparatively just fine. The argument takes the question of whether a glass is half full or half empty to a different level, placing the answer relative to somebody else's glass.

This concept, called behavioral contrast, makes personal satisfaction a relative thing. Yet this argument extends far beyond the rhetorical to the personal, as we take it quite personally when we don't measure up to someone else. In other words, comparison hurts. You know it when you do even simple things, like going driving, shopping, or going to the bank. Get in the slow lane, whether it is on the interstate, or the check out or teller lines, and you will be suitably upset because other folks are getting about faster than you. On the other hand, if you are in the fast lane, you feel at least slightly smug in your suddenly apprised superiority.

But relativity only occurs when we have something to compare ourselves to. Conceal or obscure the 'better options' and we will do just fine. That is, the grass is often greener on the other side of the fence, but if the fence is high enough, we will never know and likely not care. Lucky for us common folk, we don't compare our life styles to captains of industry or Chinese peasants because they in general are not within our psychological line of sight. So if all the world becomes like Buck Rogers in the 23rd century, we will only be upset upon viewing our neighbor's greener lawn, and remain eternally blissful of our relative poverty and desolation.

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