Posted by: Laura Delgado in ,

September 29, 2008

An old debate term - since my writing time seems so ephemeral (I'm not sure that I quite like the way that word is nuanced in this sentence, but oh well), I have to at least get down my ideas so I know what I want to write when I find the time. I don't remember who said it (I'll look it up), but I really like the quote "comparison is the death of contentment". Unfortunately, it is so much easier said than lived. Since I was a child, I have had a huge problem comparing myself to everyone and finding myself severely wanting. It's funny, I guess for some people, that quotation would not resonate at all: some people derive great satisfaction from comparing themselves to others - they always come out on top, whether because they are genuinely superior in some fashion, or because they have delusions of grandeur! In any case, Principal has no problem living this quotation, and I have no problem teaching it to my children. In my own life, however, it has been a constant struggle. Help came from the most unlikely quarter this last week!

In game theory (, there is a principal tenet that one cannot make interpersonal comparisons of utility. Without getting into the ins and outs of social choice theory (because, yes, I know that Harsanyi and Sen both argue that some limited ICUs are allowable), for my purposes as a homeschooling housewife, this realization has been remarkably helpful. Essentially, this tenet states that what Person A values can't be compared to what Person B values because the degree to what each values it is different (the utility each assigns the thing in question is different).

For example, Housewife A ranks the following objective "goods" in this order:

  1. High level of education (for herself)
  2. Happy children (operationalized as allowed to play freely, make messes, and yell)
  3. Lots of time for family (i.e., less scheduled activity time in the family)
  4. Time for her own hobbies
  5. Clean home

Housewife B ranks the same objective "goods" as follows (notice that the operationalizations are different:

  1. Clean home
  2. Happy children (operationalized as clean home, many activities, quiet and mannerly)
  3. Lots of time for family (i.e., scheduled activities, classes, "experiences", playdates)
  4. Time for own hobbies
  5. High level of education (for herself)

The preceding example shows why Housewife A could never compare herself to Housewife B. They are not even playing the same game by the same rules! They both value happy children, but they don't measure happy children by the same metric! They both value time for the family, but A considers that objective met when there are few scheduled activities and lots of time for free, creative play. B considers family time well met when her children have lots of schedules activities, and when they have many extracurricular activities so that they can experience all that life has to offer. A derives a great deal of her sense of self worth from the fact that she is highly educated, while B derives self satisfaction from her clean house. Obviously, it is completely futile for either of these two to compare herself to the other. To do so is to make an interpersonal comparison of utility - to assume that each places the same value on each "good". It is clear that such is not the case. I have to admit that I never thought that I would derive such a personal breakthrough from social choice theory!

Tying that back to the Academy, then, how nifty that I will be able to help my children avoid that nasty pitfall and no-win situation of comparing themselves fruitlessly to others, while at the same time teaching them some basic social choice and game theory! And to Housewife B, wherever you are, stop feeling superior to me! You are violating a basic tenet of game theory, and I will no longer be a partner to this crime!

This entry was posted on Monday, September 29, 2008 and is filed under , . You can leave a response and follow any responses to this entry through the Subscribe to: Post Comments (Atom) .


Well said, as usual. And I couldn't remember for the first few sentences what "signposting" was!

So maybe those massive on-line role-playing games have some redeemable qualities after all!

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