Choosing Your Comparison Group

Photo: jayneandd

I told my wife that I’m happy when I run my best possible, which I did (25:58) in Sunday’s Komen Run for the Cure 5KM race in Austin.? She said that I should also be very happy that I took first place out of eight old guys in my age category (65-69).? I’ve never placed first before – so I am happy, but less happy than if I had come in second with better competitors. (The second-place finisher was five minutes behind me – the guys who typically run at about my pace didn’t race.) This implies strange things about my?utility function – which is apparently defined not just over absolutes, and not only expanded to include relative position, but also includes relative position compared to what one expects the comparison group to be.? Are there other examples of this type of what I view as rational thinking, but which seems weird on the surface?


I don't so much see this concept as "weird", rather more like "common sense".

J. Plain

One's financial compensation was the first thing that came to mind. I often think of the phrase: "you're rich if you're making more than your brother-in-law." However, if you're both making less than all of your neighbors, friends, and work colleagues, then you might not be as happy regardless of absolute comp levels. I'm sure that there are plenty of people in finance who have expressed displeasure upon seeing a bonus of over $1MM b/c of a tough comparison set.

J. Plain

I personally don't know any men over 65 yrs of age who run 5K races regularly. So congrats to you! (Does that make you feel any better?)

Ian Kemmish

I'm at my happiest when people tell me I look ten years younger than I actually am. I suppose it's not beyond the bounds of belief that your ego would also rather believe that you have the body of a 55-59 year old.

I recall my old English teacher, who was into drama in a big way. He used to say that "that was an excellent production for a school play" was about the worst thing any parent could say to him. His schools regularly performed "difficult" works by the likes of Joseph Heller at the Edinburgh Fringe, and got good reviews. Oh, and he launched the career of Rowan Atkinson.

Of course, many people are content to be a big fish in a small pool. But fortunately, some are always willing to risk it in the bigger pool.

Frederik Anseel

We did a study on the type of comparisons people use to evaluate their own pay, and we found that an upward comparison seems to have the most impact on our pay satisfaction. However, note that if we earn more than what the top group earns in our domain, our satisfaction drops to some extent. Why? We have no idea :-). We're currently examining how people weigh self (absolute) and comparison standards in evaluating their pay. See, for full study.


Claudio araya

The salary


See "Choosing the Right Pond: Human Behavior and the Quest for Status" by Robert Frank. 1985. A good read.

Krish Van Colombo

If you can do 5K I'm Jealous mate. I huff and puff after 3K and I only be 39 tomorrow.

When I have to compare success there is one measurement unit I have found through the years which works always.

I compare sacrifices.

If I sacrifice less (of values dear to me like family time, health or someone's else's happiness) to achieve the same as another, I consider myself a winner.


Alex in Chicago

In many states, the high schools are creating new "classes" for state championships. For instance in Illinois, we went from 2 to 3 or 4 divisions for most sports so we are greatly increasing the number of "State Champions". However, a bunch of wrestlers I know seem to know that they would not have done as well in the old format and have feelings similar to buyer's remorse.

baby rocking horse

Choosing your comparison group is very an interesting article. It is like going beyond your limits. This is really an inspiring post. I am glad that I have stumbled upon it. Congratulations.

Eileen M Wyatt

Class rankings: do you want to be valedictorian at a high school known to have low achievement or merely in the top 10 at the best school in the region? College admission officers care about that difference.

tom brakke

Much of the investment business runs on relative performance comparisons.

The peer group one is placed in is an important part of how your performance is viewed--and also affects your behaviors. To use the race analogy, you end up looking a lot more at the other runners than would be optimal.


Due to your wealth of time advantage, you should now be taxed of that extra time, which will be donated according to the desires of Congress and the president.

If you die after December 31, your estate will also be required to donate an additional portion of that time.


There's always a temptation to be a Texas Sharp-shooter.


Mexican soccer players.

The best ones in the local league are regarded as just "good." In comparison, the ones who play on mediocre European leagues (Netherlands, Scotland) or those that play on the best European leagues but on mediocre teams (West Ham, Deportivo la Coruña) are regarded as much better.

Pablo Barrera was easily one of the best players in the Mexican league. He is now playing (or, should I say, warming the bench) for West Ham. Yet, non-Pumas fans think much higher of him now.


I enjoy most playing basketball against someone slightly worse than me. The feeling of beating a worthy opponent is the best. If he's too weak, it's not fun beating him easily. If he's too strong, it's obviously not fun losing


Subjecting purely psychic rewards (and punishments) to rational assessment is a fool's errand, and one I find myself running constantly. There is no more shameful experience than besting categorically inferior rivals, and then having a medal hung around your neck. It tastes like an accolade for bullying, the Times's electrified topic of late. As a high school xc runner, I was a decent-size fish in a big lake: the no. 5/6 guy on a team that came in second in the state championship. My 9:55 two-mile never came remotely close to a winning time, save for once, the aforementioned embarrassment. It was a track meet late in the season, and our team had destroyed the rival school, as we almost always did. The two-mile was the second to last event, and somebody had to run it. Coach stuck me in by myself, as mop-up man. I lapped the poor kids from the other team, and was afraid I might lap them twice. It was the worst experience I've ever had in my 43 years of running. My failure to meet my goal of 2:36 in the marathon defines me, and always will, now that time has disfigured me. I regard 2:36, which is six-minute mile pace, as the temporal cleaver separating the runners from the joggers. Twice, I had my prey in my jaws after mile 20, only to fall prey to leg cramps. We were told not to drink water, as it would cause cramps. Ah well. I would give a great deal to have run my 2:36. It would have recast my perception of myself a a runner. I still go out and do my ten-mile course a couple of times a week. When the scoped knee cooperates, I can even fake a stride. My heart and lungs think that my connective tissues are still eighteen years' old, and the two sides quarrel interminably. But at the end of the day to come, id est my death, the only thing that will matter to me, as a runner, is not running 2:36.



I think the reason you are a little disappointed is that you didn't feel challenged. We perform our best when we are pushed to our peak.


well thats good for you so you have competetors well keep up the good work maby there will be more challangeing runs to test your full ability


I dont know what your talking about utility function? God job on race broseph.