We don’t have an internal value meter that tells us how much things are worth. Rather, we focus on the relative advantage of one thing over another, and estimate value accordingly. (For instance, we don’t know how much a six-cylinder car is worth, but we can assume it’s more expensive than the four-cylinder model). And that’s how marketers manipulate us. In this case, we may not have known whether the Coke at 12k was a better deal than the Burger option at 22k. But we certainly knew that the Burger-and-Coke option for 22k was better than the Burger option at 22k.
In fact, we could reasonably deduce that in the combination package, the Coke is FREE. Person 2: Most people don’t know what they want unless they see it in context. We don’t know what kind of racing bike we want—until we see a champ in the Tour de France ratcheting the gears on a particular model. We don’t know what kind of speaker system we like—until we hear a set of speakers that sounds better than the previous one. We don’t even know what we want to do with our lives—until we find a relative or a friend who is doing just what we think we should be doing.
Everything is relative, and that’s the point. In the case, the decision between the Coke-only and Burger-only options would take a bit of thinking. Thinking is difficult and sometimes unpleasant. So the M D’s marketers offered us a no-brainer: relative to the burger-only option, the burger-and-coke option looks clearly superior. LET ME OFFER you this visual demonstration of relativity. As you can see, the middle circle can’t seem to stay the same size. When placed among the larger circles, it gets smaller. When placed among the smaller circles, it grows bigger.
The middle circle is the same size in both positions, of course, but it appears to change depending on what we place next to it. This might be a mere curiosity, but for the fact that it mirrors the way the mind is wired: we are always looking at the things around us in relation to others. We can’t help it. This holds true not only for physical things—toasters, bicycles, puppies, restaurant entrees, and spouses—but for experiences such as vacations and educational options, and for ephemeral things as well: emotions, attitudes, and points of view. Person 3: CAN WE DO anything about this problem of relativity?
The good news is that we can sometimes control the “circles” around us, moving toward smaller circles that boost our relative happiness. If we are at our class reunion, and there’s a “big circle” in the middle of the room with a drink in his hand, boasting of his big salary, we can consciously take several steps away and talk with someone else. If we are thinking of buying a new house, we can be selective about the open houses we go to, skipping the houses that are above our means. If we are thinking about buying a new car, we can focus on the models that we can afford, and so on. We can also change our focus from narrow to broad.
Let me explain with an example from a study conducted by two brilliant researchers, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Suppose you have two errands to run today. The first is to buy a new pen, and the second is to buy a suit for work. At an office supply store, you find a nice pen for $25. You are set to buy it, when you remember that the same pen is on sale for $18 at another store 15 minutes away. What would you do? Do you decide to take the 15-minute trip to save the $7? Most people faced with this dilemma say that they would take the trip to save the $7. Now you are on your second task: you’re shopping for your suit.
You find a luxurious gray pinstripe suit for $455 and decide to buy it, but then another customer whispers in your ear that the exact same suit is on sale for only $448 at another store, just 15 minutes away. Do you make this second 15-minute trip? In this case, most people say that they would not. Person 4: But what is going on here? Is 15 minutes of your time worth $7, or isn’t it? In reality, of course, $7 is $7—no matter how you count it. The only question you should ask yourself in these cases is whether the trip across town, and the 15 extra minutes it would take, is worth the extra $7 you would save.
Whether the amount from which this $7 will be saved is $10 or $10,000 should be irrelevant. This is the problem of relativity—we look at our decisions in a relative way and compare them locally to the available alternative. We compare the relative advantage of the cheap pen with the expensive one, and this contrast makes it obvious to us that we should spend the extra time to save the $7. At the same time, the relative advantage of the cheaper suit is very small, so we spend the extra $7. Person 5:
This is also why it is so easy for a person to add $200 to a $5,000 catering bill for a soup entree, when the same person will clip coupons to save 25 cents on a one-dollar can of condensed soup. Similarly, we find it easy to spend $3,000 to upgrade to leather seats when we buy a new $25,000 car, but difficult to spend the same amount on a new leather sofa (even though we know we will spend more time at home on the sofa than in the car). Yet if we just thought about this in a broader perspective, we could better assess what we could do with the $3,000 that we are considering spending on upgrading the car seats.
Would we perhaps be better off spending it on books, clothes, or a vacation? Thinking broadly like this is not easy, because making relative judgments is the natural way we think. Can you get a handle on it? I know someone who can. He is James Hong, cofounder of the Hotornot. com rating and dating site. (James, his business partner Jim Young, Leonard Lee, George Loewenstein, and I recently worked on a research project examining how one’s own “attractiveness” affects one’s view of the “attractiveness” of others. ) For sure, James has made a lot of money, and he sees even more money all around him.
One of his good friends, in fact, is a founder of PayPal and is worth tens of millions. But Hong knows how to make the circles of comparison in his life smaller, not larger. In his case, he started by selling his Porsche Boxster and buying a Toyota Prius in its place. 4 “I don’t want to live the life of a Boxster,” he told the New York Times, “because when you get a Boxster you wish you had a 911, and you know what people who have 911s wish they had? They wish they had a Ferrari. ” That’s a lesson we can all learn: the more we have, the more we want. And the only cure is to break the cycle of relativity.