It’s said that when chased by a bear, you don’t need to outrun the bear; you just need to outrun your friend. Similarly, to win a championship, a promotion, or a date, you need only to beat the immediate competition, whether a team, a colleague, or a fellow suitor.
No wonder we constantly measure ourselves against our peers. In a survey of faculty, students, and staff at the Harvard School of Public Health, nearly half of the respondents said they’d prefer to live in a world where the average salary was $25,000 and they earned $50,000 than one where they earned $100,000 but the average was $200,000. Similarly, a majority favored relative over absolute advantage when it came to their own intelligence and attractiveness, their child’s intelligence and attractiveness, or praise from a superior. Apparently the survey respondents would rather the planet be filled with stupid, ugly children than have their own child left behind .
H. L. Mencken was on to something when he defined wealth as “any income that is at least $100 more a year than the income of one’s wife’s sister’s husband.” According to one analysis of labor statistics, sisterly competition may have contributed to rising female employment after World War II. Among grown sisters not in the workforce, a woman was more likely to get a job if her brother-in-law outearned her husband .