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?


Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.



View All Comments »
  1. Brett says:

    I don’t so much see this concept as “weird”, rather more like “common sense”.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  2. J. Plain says:

    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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  3. J. Plain says:

    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?)

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  4. Ian Kemmish says:

    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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  5. Frederik Anseel says:

    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.


    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  6. Claudio araya says:

    The salary

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  7. cbc says:

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

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  8. Krish Van Colombo says:

    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.


    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0