"Just ahead of the Joneses" may be the new catchphrase for capturing how Americans want to compare economically with their neighbors, according to Sara Solnick, associate professor of economics. Looking at the social and behavioral factors that influence economics is an interesting marriage between her undergraduate work in psychology at Harvard and her current role as an economist.
Solnick's work remains so provocative that a paper she published in 1998 was recently cited in both The New York Times and Slate. That 1998 paper was based on a survey using a "two-world scenario," one in which you have more than everybody and another in which you and everyone else has more but you have relatively less than others. Responses varied depending on the item in question and its visibility to others.
"We found that it varied for the things that we asked about. For some things, people really cared about being ahead, like attractiveness. For other things, people were extremely non-positional — particularly for the 'bads,' like being yelled at by your supervisor," says Solnick
A recent second survey by Solnick and her colleagues looked at two visible goods and offered people the chance to choose and change where they wanted to be in the spectrum.
"For all the goods, the spending worked the way we expected — when people were told that other people were spending half, they decreased their spending. And when people were told other people spent twice as much, they raised spending," says Solnick. "For satisfaction, after people were told that their spending was either way ahead or way behind, everybody's satisfaction went down. People don't like to be out of step, even if they're spending more."
Does Solnick think there is a plausible way to change behavior? "No ... But I think people would be happier if they could let go of some of those behaviors. When people found out they were either way ahead or behind, their satisfaction went down," she says. "They were okay with what they were doing until we told them they were off. So I think it is better to just tend your own garden. But it's hard to do."