Everything Is Relative

Everything is relative, at least to human eye. And human hands. And human brain, too.

Don’t believe me? Look at the orange circles in the figure. Both have same size, but it would seem to you that the one on left is smaller than the other (by the way, this is known as Ebbinghaus illusion).

But what has this got to do with relativity? (and I’m not talking about the Einstein version here)

Another experiment to demonstrate relativity embedded in our nature would require you to move your hands (literally). Take three large bowls (or any container sufficiently large enough to hold your hands would do), pour cold water into one and hot water (make sure it’s not boiling) into the second. In the third, pour lukewarm water.

Tag price doesn't always meet the final price, because the final bill also includes overpriced Scotchgard and decals
Tag price doesn’t always meet the final price, because the final bill also includes overpriced Scotchgard and decals

If you’ve done this experiment in science classrooms, you know what follows: put your right hand in cold water, left hand in hot water and keep them there for couple of minutes. Then take them out and instantly immerse them in the bowl containing lukewarm water. Your right hand will now find the water hot while your left hand feels it cold (your science teacher might have explained the concept of heat transference that day, but she surely wouldn’t have mentioned how subtle the play of your own perception here is).

But this contrast stretches beyond eyes and hands (or other physical sensations, as for that matter). It works at psychological level, too. Imagine you’re in a party and you meet two sisters. One of them is plain Jane while the other is slightly better looking than her sister. Your perception will immediately register the latter as far prettier than if she had arrived alone.

Another example is from marketing: When you go to buy a fancy new Rolls or Volkswagen from a car dealership, you’re offered varieties of add-ons like interior protection package, all-season floor mats, vehicle identification number etching, rust-proofing, nitrogen in tires, anti-theft devices, and other bells and whistles, the price of which seems measly in comparison to the price of car itself (seriously, do few hundred dollars appear humongous against the hundred thousand figure you intend to splurge on Audi V8?). But in fact, the price of these add-ons is actually much lower than upsold at dealerships. In economics, you have marginal utility. In psychology, you have contrast effect.

Same kind of thing happens at the restaurants. You gloss over the prices of every item on the menu and decide to settle for a combo or specialties rather than individual items which are priced almost the same or above those combinations (unless what you really want to eat is absent from the combo deal). Those overpriced individual items are used as decoy to lure you into buying the combos, which are the real moneymakers for the restaurants.

Marketers and sellers are well-acquainted with our habit of comparison, and use it to their full advantage (as illustrated in two teeny-tiny yet relevant examples above). In fact, they employ it so inconspicuously that you might even not realize how your buying habits are swayed in their favor. For instance (I’m picking one of the most famous and oft-repeated examples), The Economist had a subscription model earlier in which it charged $59 for online version of the magazine, $125 for print version, and a third option of $125 (again) for both print and digital version. Had there been only two choices (the first ones), most people would’ve gone for the digital edition. But together, these three option made the third one seem more alluring. Without you even noticing, they smartly shifted your preference towards the last deal (although they repealed the model later on when the trick was exposed). If you haven’t guessed it already, it’s known as decoy effect, and it’s a notorious example of the abuse of our comparative thinking.

Contrast and decoy effects occur in politics too

And this phenomenon isn’t restricted to marketing; it is exhibited in politics as well. The most famous illustration is the case of year 2000’s US presidential polls, when George W. Bush and Al Gore locked horns and the former won by a close call. But a third party candidate, Ralph Nader, is the one most remembered (and hated, though Bush Junior soon overtook him in that department) for spoiling the political Christmas during that time. He is accused of siphoning a portion of votes away from Gore (a public favorite back then), who would have won had those votes gone into his favor. However, research by Bowling Green State University scholar Scott Highhouse suggests that Nader’s presence resulted in decoy effect, wherein his public perception was akin to Gore’s, and instead of steering away votes, he might have actually helped old Al garner greater number of votes (again, similar picks result in our choosing the one that seems better). So what the study concluded was that instead of detracting Gore’s performance, his presence might have actually given a boost to it.

Despite not winning the presidential race, things later turned out to be bright for Gore (he went on to win an Emmy, a Grammy, and the Nobel peace prize). Nader got pretty low end of the deal, however (poor guy contested presidential elections unsuccessfully again in 2004 and 2008, and got disowned by the very organization he founded).

Now the big question: why we feel compelled to make comparisons?

The answer is astonishingly simple: because we lack an objective scale to compare. Not all things in life come graduated like a ruler, especially where choices are subjective and uncertain. For example, there’s no set definition for ‘happiness’ or ‘success’. Both are subjective in nature and there are no SI units for standardizing either. Due to lack of an objective yardstick, we often analogize our definitions with others.

Social psychologist Leon Festinger explicated the principles of comparison when taken in context of society in his social comparison theory, in which we all make comparison against others to evaluate ourselves. When we compare ourselves against people who are better off than us, it is known as upward comparison. One blatant example of this kind is the idealization of womanly beauty by the media. Normal women often aspire to be like the young, anorexic, cosmetics-reliant models shown in the advertisements, which creates a sense of inferiority and lower self-esteem in them (unless they use those models as models for self-improvement).

Image courtesy of Randall Munroe from http://xkcd.com/1026/ under CC attribution non-commercial license 2.5
‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’. See the parody of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet by Randall Munroe

On the other hand, you often contrast yourself against the crowd you believe is in worse shape than you to raise your self-esteem (especially in ‘grapes are sour’ kind of situations). It’s called, intuitively enough, downward comparison. Although upward comparison can be used for inspiration and self-enhancement, and downward for consolation, more than often they become the cause of depression, envy, and general laziness.

From the neuroscientific angle, upward comparisons activate the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior insula regions of the brain (the latter associated with pain), which means we generally feel envious when we when compare ourselves to people more successful in the field we want to excel (or who are better than us in any way). And for downward comparison, the ventral striatum (VS), the medial orbitofrontal cortex and the ventral anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) regions are activated, which form the reward network in the brain (layman translation: we feel smug about ourselves when we outperform others, or when we watch superior people from upward comparisons fall from grace).

So, what’s the moral of the story here? Is relativity a bad thing? (for physics grads who flinch at its very name, it surely would be).

Like I said, we lack objective scale for appraising the worth of abstract nouns in life. The best way to do so is by looking up to other people. Unfortunately, we rely on this ability too much to form half-baked opinions about other things as well as ourselves which we ultimately utilize in making many important decisions. This practice of ours is exploited by crafty people and we usually end up as victims. The best way to combat this kind of cozenage is through knowledge. Now that we have the World Wide Web, it shouldn’t be too hard to search for reviews of cars as well as the reputation of dealerships. A bit more laborious task it is, but one that goes long way in saving your bacon.

So the next time you head off to local supermarkets, make sure you stick with your shopping list and not fall for the extra stuff that scream of ‘best deal ever’ but is completely unnecessary and irrelevant for you.