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The Theory of Relativity

Posted on the 16 December 2011 by Candacemoody @candacemoody

Albert Einstein

Not that one.  I’m not qualified to explain how that one works.  But the Theory of Relativity applies to income, job satisfaction and perception of change as well.

Tali Sharot write The Optimism Bias, a book on why humans almost always view the future as hopeful and sunny.  She has studied hundreds of subjects and done research on what makes our brain work the way it does. 

The Relativity Theory was first identified by Ernst Heinrich Weber (June 24, 1795 – January 26, 1878) a German physician who is considered to be one of the founders of experimental psychology.  His work measured our ability to perceive differences in weight (that is lifted or held) and found that your ability to perceive change is relative to what you start with.  If someone started out with a very light weight, a small increase was easily perceived.  But if you’re straining to hold up 100 pounds, a one ounce increase will be hard to notice.  If you’re playing music very softly, a small increase in volume will be noticeable, but if you’re blasting at full volume, you won’t notice an increase of a few decibels.

Psychologists have applied the theory of relativity to income and job satisfaction as well.  They found (not surprisingly) that people may be very happy making $80,000 a year if say, most of their circle of friends was making about $50,000.  But if most of your friends are making over $100,000, your $80,000 won’t be satisfactory at all.  It makes sense, considering human nature, and it’s one of the reasons that companies ask employees not to discuss salaries with each other.  

The theory applies to your perceptions of money as well.  If you have earned $10,000 for a job, then receive a $50 bonus, you probably won’t be at all impressed.  If you’ve earned $200 for a job, though, and receive an extra $50, you feel better about it – even though the bonus amount has not changed.

That holds two lessons for us.  One is that the more you make, the more it takes to make you feel appreciative when you get a bonus or a raise.  We don’t tend to view the gift objectively; we view it according to our starting point.

The second lesson is that you may be dissatisfied with your pay (or bonus or benefit) not because you think it’s not fair, but because you know what others are making or getting.  You’re like the person who doesn’t think he’s short until he meets a taller man.  Until that moment, he was normal sized and pretty content.

We complain   lot about our jobs, our pay, and our bosses.  Has there been a time in your career where your complaint was due more to the Theory of Relativity than actual conditions?

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