Relative vs. Absolute Good Choices for Liberals, Conservatives, and Libertarians

Awhile ago, I read about a survey given to Harvard Medical school students about whether they would prefer to live in a world where they had a higher absolute amount of some beneficial good or a higher relative amount.  For example, participants had a choice of living in a world where they make $100,000 and everyone else makes $200,000 (absolutely better) or one where they make $50,000 and everyone else makes $25,000 (relatively better), explicitly assuming buying power remains the same.  The same types of choices were made for IQ, education, vacation time, attractiveness, and other goods, with the choice being between having more of something (absolute) or having more than other people (relative).  The survey results often generate a lot of discussion, in my experience, as people are intrigued by the idea that lots of people would give up money, just to be better than others.  In truth, other studies have shown that almost everyone cares about relative concerns, just perhaps in different circumstances.

I ran the same survey at, and the results are similar to the original study, with some important differences (see graph below).  Importantly, the % of people who chose a world of relative income was smaller than in the original study, where 50% of participants chose relative position.  Perhaps people at Harvard are simply more competitive?  Mean scores are quite variable in different non-representative samples, so I wouldn’t put much stock in them, but perhaps more interesting is that the relationship between variables replicates.  Our results converge with the idea that some goods are more positional than others.  Specifically, the same things that people thought were more appropriate to think of in relative terms in the original study (praise and attractiveness) were thought to be relative in our sample, with vacation time being the least relative good.  The graph below shows questions in rough decreasing order of concern about relative position.

relative vs. absolution goods in liberals, conservatives, and libertarians

Our data suggests that some people think of things as more relative than others.  Cronbach’s alpha for the items in the graph was .80, meaning that answers positively correlate and it is reasonable to think of answers to these diverse questions as all representing some general underlying preference for relative or absolute position.

Interestingly, it appears that conservatives care more about relative position compared to both liberals and libertarians.  Perhaps this converges with the idea that conservatives have a more competitive orientation, leading to positive beliefs about competitive markets and competitive sports, both of which are found in our data as well.

The current data is based on 5,795 participants (3,559 liberals, 632 conservatives, 569 libertarians, and 1,035 others) who took this survey.  This means that aside from political orientation, we could look at other factors that are associated with preference for relative or absolute goods.  For example, concern for positional goods is negatively correlated with Big 5-Agreeableness (r=-.13, p<.001), Openness to Experience (r=-.09, p<.001), and positively correlated with Neuroticism (r=.07, p<.001).  These are very modest correlations made significant by the sample size that took both measures (3,844).  If other people have ideas for personality variables that may explain why some people prefer relative vs. absolute goods, please leave a comment with your ideas.

- Ravi Iyer



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