We were four workmates sitting at the table of a coffee shop. Middle morning of a labor day, the place was full of people asking for their thermal cups and taking them away to drink their ‘latte’ and eat some ‘muffin’ (these words are fashionable in Buenos Aires nowadays… when I was a kid we just took coffee-with-milk and biscuits). The flow of people was such that the queue to order and pay stretched almost up to the door, close to which stood our table. The flow of people was also such that turned out to be ideal for thefts of things over the chairs and their backs. And what a coincidence! Exactly theft was what we were victims of.
When two of us went to the counter to order breakfasts for the whole team, a rascal took advantage of our mates being distracted and took with him the notebooks from over the table. Our colleagues kept looking the other way when we came back and they only realized our computers were gone at the same time we did. I confess I was pretty pissed off to see my laptop was stolen. There was no way to catch anyone: not even in the street were we able to follow any trace. I immediately evaluated all that I had lost together with it and had to moderate my anger towards the ‘distracted’ who had been taken two portable PCs right in their faces. Two instead of one. Come on! We were office pals! Were they unable to pay attention for a miserable couple of minutes? Irritated…
But, precisely, there had been two thefts. I hadn’t been the only guy. The colleague who had accompanied me to get the coffees had been stolen the notebook too. If I was a fool, at least I was not alone. In fact, I myself expected to be outraged. Really mad. But I was not. OK, I admit I put my mind at ease by thinking that I should have taken responsibility of my own stuff. Anyway, looking back, I believe that the fact I was the victim of 50% of the case must have contributed. It must have given me some kind of comfort…
Is it logical? Of course not, but emotions do not have a logic. Well, yes, they do. Their own logic, which is not rational. Social psychologists currently demonstrate that our brains keep doing comparative assessments of our situation against the situation of those around us. We compare ourselves in a practically permanent way. We judge who is fatter or thinner than me, who is better or worse dressed tan me, who is more powerful than me and who does better or worse in similar circumstances to mine. And all that mental activity is carried out in a spontaneous manner.
Evidently, my mind must have jumped to the immediate conclusion that, due to my not being the only one, I was not worse than the other affected guy. And that provided me with what is usually called credo consolans: a belief -a model of reality- that comforts. That makes not feeling so bad anyway. Well, yes, there might be someone who will tell me what I’m doing is a rationalization of the matter, justifying myself interiorly so as to end up looking somehow smart after all. In any case, let’s notice that comparison still happens, and it works regarding emotional matters! Besides, let’s observe what goes on when emotional comparison works under positive circumstances:
Daniel Kahneman, awarded with the Nobel Prize in economics, worked together with Amos Tversky and evaluated what happened with those employees that unexpectedly received a raise of 5% in their salaries. We can imagine: they cheered up! (Of course, not in an inflationary environment such as the one in Argentina 2011). However, the experiment stretched one further step (otherwise, what’s the joke?): those same employees soon learned that their mates had received a 10% raise. And now joy vanished instantly. There was nothing to celebrate anymore…, what was that issue of others being better rewarded than me? Why? I demand an explanation!
Is it possible that the concept of what is ‘fair’ is grounded on that same comparison our mind does? Might it be that the essence of happiness is in its core comparative? A difficult-to-swallow idea, but nowadays the emotional mechanisms for that are being researched.
In general terms, if we are not doing as bad as the rest, we do not feel so sad. If we do better than the rest, that indeed is a reason for positive emotions. Not necessarily of jubilation, but at least of some kind of strengthening of our self-esteem, an affirmation of ourselves. (For those who refuse to accept this, at least look at the bright side: by feeling strength and fine with ourselves we are able to assist those who are weak).
It seems that this works on the opposite way too. If I had my savings locked up in the ‘corralito’, at least I was not the only one. If inflation is destroying my purchasing power, at least we are all on the same boat. If the national holiday of May 1st is this year on Sunday and thus I miss a day to rest, let’s look on the moderating aspect: all the people also miss it.
However, this whole issue has its negative side, which is the following: it leads us to be ok with the adverse conditions of the environment. As long as we are all affected to the same extent, my emotions won’t get impetuous enough so as to motivate me to seek a change. It may be for this reason, although the comparative consolation is an inherent mechanism in human beings, that there’s a saying in Spanish that goes <<mal de muchos, consuelo de… tontos>>.
Kahneman, D. and Tversky, A, (1984), <<Choices, values and frames>>, American Psychologist, 39, 341-350.