In a 2008 interview with Freakonomics, Craig Glenday, the Guinness editor, said: “We get ‘chancers’ writing to us on the off-chance that the potato chip they’ve just plucked from a packet is the world’s largest unbroken chip, or that the string of words their young child has spoken is the longest sentence by a 1-year-old, or that their 400 consecutive pogo-stick jumps are a record.” But to pass muster, he explained, a record must be measurable (“so we don’t accept the category for Ugliest Dog,” he said, “but we do accept the claim for the Most Wins of the Ugliest Dog World Championships”), superlative, breakable (with the exception of “significant firsts”), specific, and interesting.
This last qualifier is the one that separates records from simple facts. Technically, daily life is chock-full of world records that pass unnoticed. Out of all the people at The Atlantic’s office, for example, I’m the one who has spent the greatest amount of time sitting at my specific desk: a claim that’s measurable, superlative, breakable if we all switch desks, I guess, and superlative. (And verifiable, another Guinness requirement: They built the desk last month.) But interesting? Not exactly.
But interesting or no, Guinness or no Guinness, we regularly bestow these small, mundane awards upon ourselves, explained Stephen Garcia, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who studies competition. “People are always trying to find a way to make themselves seem like they’re at the top,” he said. In psychology, the “optimal distinctiveness” theory argues that people walk through their lives on a tightrope between belonging and individuality; the goal is to stand out, but not so much that they lose affiliation in the groups that help to form their identity.
“There’s a need for uniqueness, and I think people cling to that in different ways,” he said. When everyone is searching for their own brand of special, “they might see themselves as being number one in a particular dimension, and they might discount other things.”
For example, a university professor employed by a school towards the middle of the academic hierarchy “could say, ‘Well, I’m at the top school in Michigan,’ or ‘the top school in the Detroit metro area,’” Garcia said. “Any time you create a scale or a dimension that’s measurable, you also create a kind of competition.”
And in fact, the specificity of a competition—how many people can even ride a unicycle, let alone solve a Rubik’s cube while doing so?—may add to its attractiveness. A 2009 study by Garcia and a colleague found that when the number of people engaged in a contest increased, the less motivated each individual participant tended to feel. The effect was especially pronounced among the people leading the pack: “If you’re ranked 202 in something, and I’m 203, we’re both so far from the number-one standard that we’re going to be more cooperative,” Garcia explained. But towards the top, that sense of collaboration disappears: “If you and are I are number two and number three, we’re not going to share with each other, because we don’t want the other person to get ahead.”