The Theory of Relativity


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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2 thoughts on “The Theory of Relativity

  1. Excellent topic!

    The book: Relativity: The Special and The General Theory by Albert Einstein, called, “A CLEAR EXPLANATION ANYONE CAN UNDERSTAND”, leaves my brain in an uncomprehending state of space-time warpology. (To coin a new word.) Worse, I own two copies of the book; a further sign I lack an intelligent IQ.

    So…allow me to attempt to grapple with Ernst Heinreich Weber’s “The Relativity Theory.”

    First example: “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.”

    Reply: I suggest this is not a problem of perception (“notice”), but rather, once tactile skills are stressed beyond a certain physical limit, the “strain” is the body’s emergency warning system, telling you something more important, you are on the verge of total collapse; thus the brain ignores an ounce increase (brain and muscles are probably dealing with an overall mass average anyway, not an exact ounce to ounce measure). Therefore, whether Herr Weber, Tali Sharot, or you cite this as an example, it appears to be a fallacious one.

    Not being a mechanical engineer, nor an expert in areas like tactile response; the biology of muscle, skeleton, brain interactions; and never a great biology student, I may be wrong. I’m sure you have access to such experts, who may laughingly explain to you why I am totally wrong, but please consider my reply that perception has little to do with the first example.

    Second Example: “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.”

    Reply: (First, let me put my hearing aids in so I can hear you laugh at my reply. Silly me, despite Socrates life-long warning to me, “That if I know anything, then I know, I know nothing,” I suggest I know something on this one.)

    Allow me to suggest that “music played softly” activates a minimal noticeable part of the human audiology system, therefore a small increase in volume will activate a larger noticeable part of the human audiology system, up to a maximum point in a normal, healthy ear. At full volume, chances are your audiology system is activated to its maximum capability. An increase of a few decibels will either prove beyond your audiology system to consciously recognize or as certain government developed sonic weapons have shown, you can become disabled to the point of being in terrible pain and / or knocked out (pass-out), perhaps. I assume the pain is a warning of imminent collapse, not unlike the first example.

    THIS ENDS PART ONE.

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  2. Excellent Topic! (Part 2)

    “The theory applies to your perceptions of money as well.”

    Third Example: “If you have earned $10,000 for a job, then receive a $50 bonus, you probably won’t be at all impressed.”

    Reply: Accepting your assumption as reasonable for the majority of people today, here is why I feel this is a true perception, yet is based on a cold, hard, calculable reality; not faulty perception.

    Despite how the dictionary defines the word “bonus,” the word in modern usage has the connotation of “receiving something significant, beyond the norm.” (Need I point to the bonuses of sports figures, modern CEOs, and others?)

    Therefore, “you probably won’t be at all impressed” by a $50 bonus “if you earned $10,000 for a job. Why? Because the bonus represents a small percentage compared to the $10,000 earned, leaving you with the “modern feeling,” the bonus is a token, meant to be given; whether the job was a job well done or a job done poor.

    In fact, it is reasonable today to infer you’re being told you did a poor job by receiving a $50 bonus. (Think of tipping at a restuarant, where one too often tends to leave a tip, even if a small one, for service deserving no tip. Do you think the person usually gets your message?) That bonus is a form of non-verbal communication! Negative non-verbal communication.

    Fourth Example: “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.”

    Reply: The reason why the fourth example is true relates to the previous example. The bonus is equal to one-fourth of the amount you were paid for doing the job. You have received a 25% premium. That is a fact; a true perception. You are “receiving something significant, beyond the norm.” This fits the modern connotation of a bonus. The non-verbal communication here is that you did an excellent job.

    Tiring, so THIS ENDS PART 2.

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