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ScientIST: When Less is More

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by Jason G., The Thoughtful Animal/Special to LAist

In 1892, psychologist William James wrote:

So we have the paradox of a man shamed to death because he is only the second pugilist or the second oarsman in the world. That he is able to beat the whole population of the globe minus one is nothing; he has “pitted” himself to beat that one; and as long as he doesn't do that nothing else counts.

James’s observation echoes a sentiment that is well known in psychology: a person’s achievements matter less than how that person subjectively perceives those achievements. For example, you might be thrilled over a 5% raise at work until you learn that your colleague down the hall earned a 10% raise. But is there ever a case when the individual with the 5% raise (let’s call him Arthur) is happier with his or her outcome than the person with the 10% raise (let’s call her Emily)? Perhaps if the Arthur only expected a 3% raise, but Emily expected a 15% raise, then indeed Arthur would be more satisfied with his outcome, despite it being objectively lower than Emily’s outcome.

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In the picture above are the gold, silver, and bronze medalists at the medal ceremony for women’s moguls at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. In the center, gold medalist Hannah Kearney of the USA; on the right, silver medalist Jennifer Heil of Canada; on the left, bronze medalist Shannon Bahrke, also of the USA.