In the wake of the announcements of the 2008 Nobel Prize winners - which included no South Korean recipients - government officials in Seoul publicized an ongoing and ambitious program aimed at producing Nobel Prize winners from their nation. The plan is to identify the most promising candidates in appropriate fields and to provide them with generous research support. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung received the 2000 Nobel Prize for Peace, but there have been no South Korean recipients in the other Nobel fields - physics, chemistry, medicine, or literature - a fact which apparently is bothersome to some in South Korea, especially because neighboring China and Japan have produced Nobel Prize winners.
I am not convinced that the South Korean strategy will result in Nobel Prizes that would not otherwise have been awarded, but we will see. In the meantime, I wonder why it should matter so much. More generally, why should it matter so much to the citizens of any nation that it be considered the best?
Many of us feel that it does matter. As an American, I acknowledge that I followed the 2008 Olympic medal tallies very closely, wanting the United States to win more gold medals than China, or at least more total medals, or at least more medals with athletes who met minimum age requirements, or more something, or more anything, even when I had no idea what the events entailed. As an Ann Arborite, I acknowledge that I want the Michigan Wolverines to win the BCS title game someday, if only so I can stop pretending that "Hail to the Victors" is a song about the 43 currently-enrolled University of Michigan students named Victor. And as a psychologist, I acknowledge that I remain excited that Daniel Kahneman - another psychologist - received the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics. Why should it matter so much to be the best or - in the case of Nobel Prizes, Olympic gold medals, or football championships - to share an identity with those who are the best?
In broad terms, the answer no doubt lies deep in human nature and our desire to think well of ourselves, if only vicariously. But here I pose a more specific question: Why should it matter so much to be the best, as opposed to second best or third best or simply good or even just good enough? Why does South Korea desire a Nobel Prize winner - isn't it impressive that the nation has a 99+% literacy rate and that its elementary school students rank second world-wide on math achievement tests and third world-wide on science achievement tests? That's more than good, but obviously still not good enough in the eyes of some.
As I thought about these matters, I was reminded of the intriguing work by psychologist Barry Schwartz, described in his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice. Schwartz proposes that people can be arranged along a dimension anchored on the one end by a strategy of maximizing (striving always to make the best decision or choice) and on the other end by a strategy of satisficing (being content to make a satisfactory - good enough - decision or choice). Maximizers spend more time than satisficers making decisions and may even make better ones. But the rest of the story is that they regret their decisions more and are less happy with their lives. Doubts always linger that their choices were not the best possible.
Does the desire to be the very best - #1 by some criterion - reflect a strategy of maximizing run amok? Do we all become maximizers when we don the identity of our nation or tribe? Do we attend to awards and medals and championships because they are proof positive that we indeed are the best, that we have "chosen" wisely to be aligned with a given group, if only by the accident of our birth?
The alternative, which may strike some as heresy or treason, is to be satisfied if we live in a nation that is good enough. A "good enough" nation sounds like a country of losers, but is it really? Here some positive psychology reframing is needed. To decide that a nation is good enough, we need to pay attention to what it does well. A nation that is good enough allows us to count its blessings and our own. A nation that is good enough can become better, and we can help. In contrast, if our goal is to live in the very best nation, we end up attending to what it does not do well and worrying that its rank may slip away. And the vast majority of us around the world will always be losers, because only one nation can be the best.
I know of no research that has ascertained the prevalence of maximizers and satisficers across nations. Maybe these studies exist, and maybe someone can bring them to my attention. Schwartz approaches the distinction as an individual difference, not a group feature. But imagine a nation in which everyone wants to be #1, takes forever to commit to a course of action, second-guesses all decisions that are eventually made, and in general is not as happy as outsiders would expect.
Now imagine a good enough nation. It's easy if you try. Where do you want to live?
Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: Why less is more. New York: HarperCollins.