Our Brains are Hot-Wired to ‘Keep Up with the Joneses’

Here’s how to make it work for you

Our brains are hot-wired to think comparatively, and this competition can be healthy. The danger: getting caught in the endless loop of keeping up with the Joneses, while the Joneses are keeping up with us!

Professor Nick Chater, head of the Behavioural Science Group at Warwick Business School, on The Human Zoo on BBC Radio Four discusses multiple scientific experiments that have shown how we make judgements instinctively using comparison—including in deciding how happy we are.

“There is no absolute value to a house, we come to a price by comparing it with other houses in our street,” said Professor Chater, of Warwick Business School. “It is the same when we ask ‘how good is a football team?’ We do this by comparing them to other teams.”

We are so used to doing this that we don’t even notice, our brains are natural comparison machines—we can’t measure in absolute terms.”

For example, a 19th century experiment asked people to put one hand in a bucket of cold water and one in a bucket of hot water. They were then told to put both hands in a bucket of tepid water. The water is the same temperature but the hand that was hot now feels cold, and the one that was cold now feels hot—so even your basic senses use comparisons not absolute.

And this is the basic impulse for ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, as we compare ourselves to our peers, so we keep pushing each other along. 

Chater says, “Everybody values their car or house relative to other cars or houses… But because people think comparatively, they don’t gain any benefit, they don’t feel happier. They still have the third nicest car among their friends.

“This competition and instinct to compare can have positive outcomes,” says Chater. “A continual ‘competition’ to be healthier, have more friends, have a better education may be positive, if we believe these things are good in absolute terms—that is, we value them whether or not the Joneses have them too.

“But for many consumer goods, keeping up with the Joneses may be all we care about. If we all spend more on weddings, fast cars, or designer handbags, then, in comparative terms, no one feels any happier. This raises the danger that such spending is self-defeating, from the point of view of a society as a whole.”

Visit The Human Zoo weblab to take part in online experiments or link to the radio show.

Category: Psych

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