Keeping up with the Joneses impacts your giving, health, and happiness

by Pop on July 30, 2010

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That is, if the Joneses haven’t already been foreclosed upon.

The Joneses are those folks with the nice house, big cars, kids in private schools, and other detritus of suburban bling that are, in fact, financed and not true indicators of wealth. “Keeping up” with them would no doubt put you in debt, as was chronicled most famously in The Millionaire Next Door.

This post isn’t really about that. What I’d like to write about today are a few of the other ways the Joneses influence your behavior, because, let’s face it, you look to Mr. Jones and Mrs. Jones not only as exemplars of what cars to buy, but of what kinds of people to be. And following such a route can have interesting effects on your life beyond your finances.

Are you a Scrooge or a post-nightmare Scrooge?

I’m tired of everyone using “Scrooge” to describe a stingy money hoarder. Did everyone forget his ultimate redemption? It’s called a “dynamic character”, people.

But anyway, the post-nightmare Scrooge was quite generous. Last summer, a trio of researchers published a study that set out to discover if how generous you are is in part determined by how generous you think your social group is.

To do that, they struck a deal with a local public radio station, which relied on donors to stay on the air. When the membership of one of the station’s donors lapsed, the researchers sent a survey in the mail along with the usual renewal form. In addition to getting demographic data, the surveys asked the donors how much they thought others gave to the station. It turned out that if someone thought other donors gave a lot of money, he or she was more likely to give a lot of money himself.

The researchers didn’t stop there. To bolster the field testing, the economists conducted another study in a lab using everyone’s favorite test subjects: bribed undergraduate students!

The undergrads were given one of two versions of this scenario:

Imagine that since you arrived in City A, you have been listening to a local public radio station and that this station is currently having its on-air fund drive. You have been listening to the campaign for a few hours each day for the past
three days and have decided that you would like to become a contributing member of the station. You called the radio station and made your contribution of $25. During your conversation with a volunteer on the phone, you were told that another station member had contributed $10 [or $50] this year.

So basically, they were either told another donor had given more than they did ($50) or less than they did ($10).

The undergrads were then asked two questions: 1. How much do you think an average station listener would contribute? and 2. How much would you give in a subsequent year?

If undergrads were given the scenario where the “other donor” contributed $50, they guessed an average donor gave $21. The undergrads with the stingy scenario ($10) guessed the average was $15.05.

Which scenario they got also influenced how much they said they’d give in the next year, students who heard the generous story said they’d give $25.40 on average, but students who heard the stingy story would only give $20.99.

Of course, what works in a lab doesn’t always work in real life. Did the undergrads playing a game act differently than a real donor with real money would? Were the undergrads more generous because they knew they were being watched? But by combining the lab experiment with the real-world radio station survey, it’s easy to see why the researchers surmised their results would be helpful to fundraisers. Next time your alma mater starts telling you about how much your classmates give, you’ll know that they might be trying give a little bump to your contribution.

Yes, Mr. Jones did give you that ulcer.

A study published last summer found that people who feel they’ve accomplished less than their neighbors are more likely to get a whole litany of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, ulcers, and high blood pressure.

To complete the study, which is here, researchers from the University of Chicago asked 3,005 57- to 85-year olds to rate their overall health and tick off their various health problems. They were also asked to rank their financial position relative to their social circle.

It turns out, those who thought they were worse-off than their friends were 22% more likely to rate themselves as being in poor health, with a particular affinity to heart disease. Genevieve Pham-Kanter, the primary author of the study, theorizes that worrying about your lack of success as compared to your neighbors or friends increases the level of stress hormones in your body, which leads to the various diseases.

One upside: The study also found that people who felt they ranked very highly, as compared to their social group, were less likely than the average person to report diabetes, ulcers, and hypertension.

And, of course, looking over the fence doesn’t make you happy.

Quite the contrary. European economists found that people who pay attention to what their coworkers make are also less likely to be happy. In their study, the more obsessed the employees were, the more likely they were to rank low on scales like “satisfaction with life as a whole” or “feeling of depression during the past week”.

What’s more, people who compared themselves to friends and family were twice as depressed as people who just compared themselves to coworkers. The economists reasoned that people could envision making as much as a coworker one day, whereas they might not be able to do that with friends or family who have different careers.

And a finding that was especially surprising to me—the poor tend to care more about their coworkers’ earnings than the rich. As if they already didn’t have it bad enough.


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Rob Bennett July 30, 2010 at 10:09 am

Sometimes my mind wanders in strange places. I find myself trying to understand why God chose those particular ten commandments as the Ten Commandments.

Some of them seem redundant. You’ve got “Thou shalt not steal” and then you’ve got “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods.” Pretty darn similar. Given that there was only room on the stone tablets for 10, you wouldn’t think that there would be more than one making the same general point.

I believe that it’s because God loves us and commands us not to do stuff likely to hurt us. And the seemingly small difference between the two is not really as small as it seems. We will hurt ourselves in one way if we steal. But even many of us who would never think of stealing can hurt ourselves in a serious way if we give in to that temptation to covet. It’s a different kind of hurt so we needed a separate commandment making the point.

You need to keep your head down, handle the papers that get placed in the In Box, and not worry about the other players seeming to get ahead of you. That gets worked out in the end. It’s not your concern. It will just bring you pain to worry about it.


K Smith July 31, 2010 at 12:23 am

Peer influence is a timeless precept of human motivation. In keeping with the religious theme of the comments – “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Matthew 7:13-14

In modern parlance – “Don’t Follow The Crowd.”

Or in the words of moms everywhere, “I don’t care what all your friends are doing! If all your friends were jumping off a cliff, would you jump too?”

Ken August 20, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Adults are as vulnerable to peer pressure as teens. It’s sad how many sign up for thousands and thousands of debt just to ‘look like’ the others. If more people would follow their own plan and not those of others. Folks (including myself) just don’t want to be content. The ‘next new thing’ gets everyone’s dollars. Sad.

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