October 27, 2008

The Grass is Not Always Greener

Filed under: Uncategorized — numist @ 12:42 am

why do we look at other people’s jobs, relationships, our own lives, and see how great things could have been if we’d made different choices? why can’t we be happy with our current situations?

this is the classic “grass is greener on the other side of the fence” problem, and in its most basic sense is really based on us seeing mostly the positive aspects (at least, not all the negatives) of other situations while knowing the all aspects of our current situations. hypothetically, and setting social constraints aside, why don’t we leave our wives for supermodels when given the possibility?

I think the answer is best explained with a financial analogy, but I’ll have to twist it a little, so bear with me (and my more-reckless-than-normal use of parentheticals). to model the relationships-like-stocks metaphor, let’s consider relationships to be like stocks with a constant price, but each have a varying value.

you marry someone. they’re pretty cool, and you get along well. you’ve now bought one stock of wife. congratulations!

domestically, you adapt to each others’ quirks and learn to work with each other (for example, I like to cook, and I dislike doing laundry). stock appreciates.

you weather some tragedy together, strengthening your bond. stock appreciates.

hopefully wife is pretty awesome and the relationship has mostly appreciated. now a supermodel comes around, and she’s way more comely than your wife.

now what, sell the wife and buy a supermodel? not necessarily; the grass-is-greener problem doesn’t consider the cost of starting from scratch with relationships. so what if it’s true that if you’d started with supermodel instead of wife in the beginning, your total “score” would be higher now? that option wasn’t available then, and if you do the switch now, you’ll be taking a loss both immediately and (probably) not making it back in the future. most of the time the grass-is-greener problem is just a logical fallacy.

there’s also the problem of risk. even if supermodel’s apparent worth is higher than your current relationship including all the value added over time, you have a lot of risk to factor. what if supermodel also has severely unappealing qualities that just aren’t observable from the outside? (it’s hard to research stocks) and there’s also no guarantee that this new investment will appreciate at all.

as an aside, it’s true that the financial analogy works the other way, too. say you have an old friend and they sabotage you, or do otherwise unfriendly things. the market on that investment crashes, and it’s worth it to sell. people-investments can go into negative values – having no friend is better than having a friend that will constantly go out of their way to hurt you.

people and social settings in general are a lot less volatile than the financial markets, and people don’t tend to fundamentally change quickly (when they do, it’s not very hard to make a snap-decision), so this problem isn’t very hard as long as you’re observant. your oldest (and hopefully most successful) investments are also most likely to retain their value over time, so avoid new opportunities that would destroy them.

this works for almost any sort of choice you can make, employers included (a company is really just a collection of people). if you want to make the financial analogy even more lifelike, consider that dividends are possible, where a friend introduces you to someone else, who also becomes your friend.


1 Comment »

  1. I appreciate this approach to framing the issue. Implicit in your explanation is your personal value system, though, so it may not apply to others with ease. There are (allegedly) those who don’t optimize for happiness and well-being, so wouldn’t understand (and, I daresay, would be offended by) your value/utility analysis.

    That said, maybe those type of people are thinning in number. Or more probably I’m just myopic.

    I don’t really know why I felt compelled to make that case, because I completely agree with you. I think there’s possibly a deeper connection too, though. Namely that of aligned or shared philosophies. When investing, it may make more sense to buy stock in a company that values quality over market penetration because you too value quality, personally. Similarly, the degree of shared philosophical interests and conclusions with a mate is, I posit, of great significance to the long-term performance of the investment (relationship).

    Comment by Brad — October 27, 2008 @ 6:17 pm | Reply

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