How attractive are you? How happy are you? How financially comfortable are you?
These questions are deceptively simple, but the psychological process that steps in before you can answer each one is remarkably sensitive. Many of the concepts that we measure in the social world are difficult to measure objectively, in the absence of reference points, so we're compelled to rely on constantly changing yardsticks.
When estimating how attractive you are, for example, do you compare yourself to celebrities and models, or to the Elephant Man and Quasimodo? Do you compare yourself to your five closest friends, or to five people randomly drawn from your memory bank of faces? There's no right answer, of course, but the answers you'll reach depend heavily on which standards of comparison you select and which you ignore. In one classic paper by Doug Kenrick and Sara Gutierres, two male undergraduates interrupted a group of male undergraduates while they were watching Charlie's Angels in the late 1970s. They asked the undergraduates to look at a picture of a woman and to rate her attractiveness so they could decide whether to set her up on a blind date with one of their friends. Men who were not watching Charlie's Angels believed she was moderately attractive-they placed her at precisely the midpoint of an attractiveness scale-but the men who were now watching Charlie's Angels were significantly more critical. The men who watched Farah Fawcett immediately before turning their gaze to Miss Average now saw Miss Below Average, a sad result that explains why people struggle to measure up to the impossible standards of beauty that dominate our modern media landscape.
The same absence of comparison standards makes it difficult to estimate your level of happiness. When assessing your happiness right now, are you comparing your sense of wellbeing to your happiness yesterday or last month or last year? Or are you imagining how much happier or sadder you are than your best friend, the starving millions whose lives entail one struggle for survival after another, or your one impossibly cheery friend who seems immune to the daily events that dampen the happiness of everyone else you know? Alternatively, are you thinking about the best aspects of your life, or the worst? Each approach suggests its own level of happiness, a combination of the particular ingredients that place it somewhere on a continuum bounded by "sadness" and "happiness." To illustrate the fickleness of these assessments, for example, Norbert Schwarz and his colleagues asked a group of adults how satisfied they were with their marriages, and with their lives more generally. When they were first asked how satisfied they were with their marriages, their response was strongly related to their general life satisfaction. Schwarz argued that they were measuring the complex variable of life satisfaction by turning to the information that was most easily accessible: their recent assessment of marital satisfaction. In contrast, when the adults were asked to assess their general life satisfaction first, they were bombarded with lots of relevant accessible information: job satisfaction, social support from friendships, the richness of their past-times and hobbies-and, of course, marital satisfaction. Not surprisingly, when next asked to indicate their marital satisfaction, the relationship between their overall life satisfaction and marital satisfaction was quite low. Even a variable as seemingly trivial as the order in which they were asked the two questions had a dramatic effect on their responses.
It's easy to see why the same logic applies to financial wellbeing. Most Americans are financially quite comfortable when you compare them to the impoverished masses that populate large tracts of the globe. But when you're evaluating your own wellbeing, you probably ignore the very poor and the very rich (Bill Gates' considerable wealth isn't a natural comparison standard either), settling on a reference group of your peers whose wealth is very similar to your own. Other people might remember the good times, before we were hit by a seemingly endless recession, when they were considerably more comfortable than they are now. Again, each comparison standard generates very different conclusions, some implying that we're quite financially comfortable and others implying that we're financially deprived. One way to make people feel deprived, for example, is to ask them to indicate their annual income on a five-point scale with points defined by "less than $200,000 per year," "$200,001-$500,000," "$500,001-$1,000,000," "$1,000,001-$5,000,000," and "$500,000,001 or more." The vast majority of Americans are likely to circle the leftmost alternative, which tacitly implies that their income places them near the bottom of a distribution that the scale's creators deemed relevant or informative. In contrast, to make people feel relatively wealthy, the scale might feature points like "less than $5,000 per year," "$5001-$7,000," "$7,001-$10,000," "$10,001-$20,000" and "$20,001 or more." Now, since most Americans earn more than $20,000 per year, they're likely to circle the rightmost response, implying that their income places them at the top of the distribution implied by the scale's numerical values.
These examples-and there are many more-show just how malleable our assessments of the social world can be. Concepts like pain and temperature have absolute comparison standards-I know whether I'm in pain or whether I'm hot or cold regardless of how hot, cold, or uncomfortable you are-but the social world lacks similarly innate objective standards. As a result, we're at the mercy of whichever comparison we happen to adopt at any point in time. On a day when you're exposed to Charlie's Angels, Bill Gates, and the ever contented Dalai Lama, you shouldn't be surprised if you feel plain, poor, and pouty.