Several years ago, we got together with some friends to teach them to play “The Settlers Of Catan”. We’d never tried using the recommended setup from the rule book so we gave that a go expecting that it would put us all in an equally good spot. The starting positions were fair, but instead of giving everyone an equally advantageous situation, we all were equally disadvantaged. All of us were digging out of a hole and it lead to one of the longest games we’ve ever played. We’ve never tried the suggested setup again because it’s better to learn from a good place and have fun even if that means someone else is in a better position.
Because all of our physical senses deal with changes, we notice differences and not absolutes. For example, people who live around a feedlot stop smelling manure everyday, their brain simply filters it out, but when we visit our brain has us searching for a binder clip to plug our nose. We smell, taste, feel, hear, and see differences. Because of this natural inclination, we also tend to mentally compare ourselves to the reference points of those around us. Oddly, this makes who we compare to a larger factor in our contentment than what we objectively have and creates strange situations. Would you rather make $50,000 dollars while all your peers make $45,000 or make $90,000 while all your peers make $95,000? Most of us can sense the tension in this question even if we can rationally decide that the second is objectively better in every other regard except in the comparison.
Given all of this, when we make decisions about what’s fair for a group, is it better for us to minimize the variance between any two people or is it better for us to try to maximize the position of the worst member? Minimizing the variance is subjectively better. Any comparison results in closer equality even if it means everyone is in an equally painful situation. Maximizing the least means that objectively everyone is in a better place even if some have much more than the least. This dichotomy presents itself in a number of arenas: How should we create government policies? How should we reward our employees? How should we view our own situation in life? In each of these situations, what creates the greatest good for the greatest number?
(Some represent a third view, usually implicitly, that if we improve the average we’re doing well. For example, if the average per capita income in a state is greater than that of a country in Europe, they argue that’s necessarily a good thing. Averages don’t tell us either subjectively or objectively whether people are in a better position since one person could have 99.9999% of the benefit making the average look great while the reality is bleak.)
If we want to fight our natural inclination to compare in order to achieve a better objective end, it will require some amount of retraining our natural course of thought. We must pick different reference points for comparison and escape thinking that variability is the only thing that matters. Ultimately, in most situations both variance and maximizing the minimum need to be considered because even when we chose something that is objectively better, those involved may still wrestle with the subjective aspect of it.
We have no simple solution to these problems, but it’s helpful if we have some way to think about the tradeoffs we are making between the subjective and objective. Moreover, if any of us want find contentment, we must stop viewing the world as a comparison game and instead consider objectively how much we have relative to having nothing at all.