Sunday, August 10, 2008

A New Theory of Relativity

I know that there are probably at least two people dying for the last five books of my 2004 top ten, and I promise to return to that topic shortly. But for now, I want to introduce a new theory of relativity--a theory that you will care about much more than Einstein's. This theory comes from Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational, a book that will undoubtedly be making my top ten in 2008 (though that's getting a bit ahead of myself).

Ariely reminds us of something we already understand intuitively--that we make judgments in relative terms. We can identify the color teal only in terms of blue and green; teal has a little bit more blue than green, and a little less yellow. You can't evaluate teal in terms of red and purple, because teal does not share any identifiable characteristics with those colors. Similarly, Ariely argues, we look at faces and people in relative terms. After recounting several experiments he conducted, Ariely provides dating and marriage advice.


"What if you are single, and hope to appeal to as many attractive potential dating partners as possible at an upcoming event? My advice would be to bring a friend who has your basic physical characteristics (similar coloring, body type, facial features), but is slightly less attractive (-you). Why? Because the folks you want to attract will have a hard time evaluating you with no comparables around. However, if you are compared with a '-you,' the decoy friend will do a lot to make you look better, not just in comparison with the decoy but also in general, and in comparison with all the other people around."

Take home lesson for the double-dating youth of the Hutchins clan: When you're trying to make a first impression, or when you're out on your first date with someone, make sure that the other member of your sex along for the double date is someone who will make you look good. If you want to be seen as teal, make sure you bring along a fried who is blue, so that your date will be able to distinguish the things that set you apart from your blue friend. (If you bring along a red or purple friend, it would be like comparing apples and oranges; this way, you're giving your date a look at a nicely shined apple and one that looks less appealing.) If you've got a good friend who's willing to play the part (dress slightly worse than you, be less engaging than you, etc.), perhaps you could even take turns being the decoy--because once you've snagged your date, you no longer have to use the decoy to maintain your hold on him/her.

Marriage Advice

I am happy. I think--and I'm not sure I agree with Ariely's point of view on this one, but it's entertaining, so I thought I'd share. Since our perceptions of happiness depend on our perceptions of relative circumstances, Ariely reminds us of a comment by H. L. Mencken, a satirist and journalist. Mencken proposed that "...a man's satisfaction depends on (are you ready for this?) whether he makes more than his wife's sister's husband. Why the wife's sister's husband? Because (and I have a feeling that Mencken's wife kept him fully informed of her sister's husband's salary) this is a comparison that is salient and readily available."

Now, as I stated before, I think I'm happy--but maybe I'm really not and only think that I am--because my wife's sister's husband makes at least four times what I do. (Obviously, I believe there's more to happiness than money, so something else must be compensating for the relative lack of cold hard cash in my life.) The lesson, though is still good as far as marriage is concerned: If you marry into a family where the other son/daughter-in-laws are exceptional, you might expect to have a harder time living up to the expectations of your spouse. If, on the other hand, you marry into a family where previous son/daughter-in-laws have proved to be a disappointment, you might expect to be praised by your spouse even for relative mediocrity--because all they have to compare you with are relatively disappointing sons/daughters-in-law.

Just a few thoughts from my most recent read--and one that I would highly recommend.

1 comment:

The Orton's said...

I so enjoy reading your thoughts. This book looks really interesting although I'm not sure I'll be able to keep up with your recommendations...

Love you!