It's All Relative

How comparisons create self-knowledge, action, and emotions.

Why Are the "Modern Family" Actors Asking for More?

Have they lost perspective?

I'm a fan of the show Modern Family. I don't catch it every week, but I pull up a recorded episode when I'm looking for a little laugh at the end of the day. So, I noticed when reports came out that there was a salary standoff. The adult actors are trying to renegotiate their salaries so that they can make $200,000 per episode. Yep, $200,000 per week, 22 weeks of the year. That's a lot of money.  Of course, their previous salary of $50,000 per week was also a lot of money. So, why are they asking for more?

In many parts of life, status is tied not just to how much you get paid, but how much you get paid relative to the other guy. It's not just that I want to be paid a lot, but I want to be paid more than someone else. Studies have found that people actually prefer positions in which they would get paid more than their co-workers, even if it meant getting less money overall. That doesn't seem to make any sense at all!  Why should I prefer $25,000 a year, with my co-workers getting $20,000 a year over making $27,000 a year, with my co-workers getting $30,000 a year? What could be worth $2,000 a year?

As with many things in life, the work world doesn't necessarily have many metrics for success.  In school, we get grades and test scores tell us whether we are smarter or more successful than our classmates. In sports, points and times and places tell us whether we are faster or better than our competitors. In the work world, what is there? While some folks are content with the personal knowledge that they are doing a good job, most of us like a little reward, a little public acknowledgement of our contributions and our success. Salary is one way that we can obtain that.  Of course, salaries can be private, but the things that salaries can buy can be very public. For example, Nick Bilton in the New York Times recently suggested that the nouveau riche in Silicon Valley have made spending on outrageous parties a competitive support. 

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But, it isn't just billionaires who spend to show that they've "made it." An article in Business Week suggests that people use smaller objects, like purses to show their relative status. Certainly, one could argue that the techies who line up to the be first owners of new gadgets and phones are hopeful that their new possession will show how cutting edge they are.

So, it makes sense that entertainment stars are eager for proof that they are successful and valued.  It is a field in which stars rise and fall and popularity may only endure for one show or one more season. Especially for actors who have just hit it big, the need for proof may be even stronger. Of course, they should be a little cautious, television history is littered with stars whose desire for recognition exceeded their actual star power. One shouldn't forget that $50,000 or $150,000 is still a lot of money, regardless of whether one's colleagues are making more or less.

Camille Johnson, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and Associate Professor of Organization and Management at San Jose State University.

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