Psychological Impact of a Large Connected World

Rachmaninoff prelude sheet music pageMy girlfriend is an excellent piano player. While I can pick out simple tunes where the notes are happily sparse, she plays from pages that are more black than white. Yet I have a tough time seeing this as being as impressive as it is. While she may be a 1 in 100,000 piano player, I get to listen to recordings and go to concerts of the few 1 in 10,000,000 players.

Patri at WSOP 1999I evaluate my own abilities similarly. In college, I took the Putnam Exam each year, a math competition so difficult that more than half of participants get 0 or 1 points out of 120. My best score was in the twenties, which squeaked me into the top 200 nationwide. While this felt like an accomplishment, it didn't seem like a major one, since my small college typically has 5-10 students make the top 200. More recently, I took 165th out of 2600 participants in the world championships of poker. But as I know several of the top finishers, this again didn't seem like a big deal. It was only when putting together a resume recently that I stopped to consider how unusual these accomplishments truly are.

My judgement of writing ability is the same way. I choose to read the writers who are the most talented, most interesting, and whose styles I enjoy - hence my standard of comparison is extremely high. It's only when I take classes involving group writing assignments that I realize just how uncommon is the ability to write competently, even among those pursuing graduate degrees.

Our personal worlds are vastly larger than at any previous time in human history. Our population is much higher, and we are exposed to the best of the best of this huge pool of talent. This can be hard on one's self-esteem. The person who used to be able to take pride in being the best of their acquaintance at something is now humbled by comparison with the best of their state, nation, and world.

This can have negative effects, for example on the stability of marriage. We subconsciously evaluate our partner's attractiveness relative to the other people we see. In the past, we saw a fairly small group, but now we are exposed to images of the world's most beautiful women and stories about the world's most successful men on a daily basis. Studies have shown that this decreases how attractive we find our partner [FuturePundit summary].

While the interconnected world's effect on self-esteem may be negative, it has huge benefits in other areas. My standard for my writing and mathematical abilities and my girlfriend's piano playing may be absurdly high. But the flipside is that books by the most interesting and talented writers in the world, theorems from the most brilliant mathematicians, and songs performed by the best musicians are just a few clicks away.

On the whole, I think this is wonderful. But its important to periodically stop and consider our standards for comparison, make sure we aren't being too hard on ourselves and our partners, and take pride in our accomplishments. Then we can get back to drooling over Playmates, reading Neal Stephenson, and listening to the London Sympony Orchestra.

(Aside: It is not coincidental that writing, theorems, and audio are all informational goods, hence have low marginal cost, hence improvements in quality have vast, dispersed benefits.)

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"This can have negative

"This can have negative effects, for example on the stability of marriage. We subconsciously evaluate our partnerâ??s attractiveness relative to the other people we see. In the past, we saw a fairly small group, but now we are exposed to images of the worldâ??s most beautiful women and stories about the worldâ??s most successful men on a daily basis. Studies have shown that this decreases how attractive we find our partner."

Well I guess that all depends on who your partner is, now doesn't it?

Is this the first time

Is this the first time you've entered the WSOP Pat? Did you buy your entry or win a satellite? Do you play online, and at which sites?

Awesome! The guys and I just

Awesome! The guys and I just finished watching the WSOP on ESPN last night. Cool that you made it to the money! Did you get to sit with any of the big guys?

The Curse and Blessing of

The Curse and Blessing of the Ultimate Comparison Class
Patri Friedman makes a nice point about comparison classes and self-esteem over at Catallarchy....

Yobbo - No, this is the 3rd

Yobbo - No, this is the 3rd time I've played in the main event. The first time was in 1999, I got 67th/460, which wasn't quite in the money. I bought in directly. I play online at Party Poker.

Brian - I guess ESPN didn't use their interview of me...not too surprising, I'm sure most of them get cut. I've sat with the big guys many times, but this WSOP was so full of new faces that my tables were mostly internet unknowns.

"My girlfriend is an

"My girlfriend is an excellent piano player."

Yeah, mine too. There's a certain joy in knowing that someone extraordinarily talented is (at least in your case) that close by and available for a live performance.

"My judgement of writing ability is the same way. I choose to read the writers who are the most talented, most interesting, and whose styles I enjoy"

Yeah, me too. That's why you're consistently on my list of people to pay attention to. You do interesting things, you do them well, and you communicate them effectively.

On the big point, however, I notice that the happiest and most well-adjusted people I know learn how to handle those expectations effectively. Yeah, we might never be as beautiful as playmates, or as financially successful as Trump, or any of a number of other standards for success. Still, when people learn to adjust their expectations accordingly, they're much better off.

I suppose that I'm an

I suppose that I'm an exception to those studies that show people finding their partners less attractive when exposed to "the most beautiful people" on a regular basis. I'm entirely capable of recognizing beauty in others while still finding my wife incredibly attractive. There's not a day that goes by when I'm not more attracted to her than I was the day before.

Congrats on your WSOP finish. If you ever decide to slum and play 2/4 on Party, let me know. It'd be fun to play with you!

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On the subject of the benefits of a large, interconnected world