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

June 19th, 2011 by Ravi Iyer

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

Posted in consumer psychology, differences between republicans and democrats, libertarians, positional goods, relative income, relative vs. absolute goods, replications of other studies, unpublished results, yourmorals.org8 Comments »

8 Responses to “Relative vs. Absolute Good Choices for Liberals, Conservatives, and Libertarians”

  1. lillet says:

    It is also interesting because conservatives and libertarians are more likely than liberals to support economic policies that, while theoretically effecting kaldor-hicks improvements, exacerbate inequality. Based on this, I would have expected liberals to treat income as more of a positional good and libs/cons to treat income as more of an absolute good.

    I am also surprised that “praise” and “criticism” get such disparate ratings from everyone.

  2. Ravi Iyer says:

    yes, that is interesting in and of itself and thanks for pointing that out. Praise is a relative good, while criticism is more of an absolute good. If I think about it, it makes sense, as praise means a lot more from someone who doesn’t praise everyone, while criticism is always meaningful/hurtful, no matter how much everyone else gets.

  3. DRT says:

    Do you have personality indicators that correlate with MB sensing vs. intuitive?

  4. lillet says:

    I would also be interested in an MBTI S/N breakdown.

  5. Ravi Iyer says:

    I believe that the Baron-Cohen systemizing/empathizing distinction maps onto the Myers-Brig dimensions, but I still need to confirm that. Those results by political group are in our libertarians paper (see and maybe I can do a blog post specifically on that eventually. Thanks for the suggestion.

  6. Matt says:

    I’d love to see a reversed version of this which asks people whether they prefer a world where some randomly chosen individual is relatively worse off, even though everyone else is globally better off or whether they prefer a more equal but worse world.

    I’d also like to see a version for “groups” rather than individuals.

    I’d bet on all of these, the Liberals would chose the “relatively more equal, but absolutely worse” world, even when the absolutely better world would probably have massive trickle down benefits (i.e. IQ, which is as far from being a positional good as you can get).

  7. Ravi Iyer says:

    That’s a very good idea, Matt. I may try it, but hope others try such an idea too. The idea that liberals might choose equality over everything being better for everyone is an interesting hypothesis. And that’s coming from a liberal Obama supporter too…:) Thanks.

  8. Dave Morgan says:

    This is a little old but I just read it and wanted to make a point that I hope everyone reads. This study does not show that people are in anyway more greedy. Reality is we would all prefer relatively better. Your money example already doesn’t make any sense because it is absolutely better to have a relatively higher amount than everyone else and if they ALL are making the same amount then it does not matter what that amount is you may say buying power doesn’t change but all things are relative so they will. In other words you have created an impossible scenario and the same applies to every question. Me being slightly smarter while EVERYONE is a lot smarter makes me literally the dumbest person on the planet. That’s not absolutely good.

    I don’t know how this would be defined but for me I would say absolute good is empathy or the golden rule. “Do to others as you would want to be treated”. If you truly consider empathy for others and yourself in your actions/decisions your outcome may not have good results but will ALWAYS be with absolute good intent. You can look at literally any bad thing and see why it wasn’t empathetic of at least yourself. Through the law of reciprocity and the butterfly effect we see that anything we put out is most likely to be replicated and spread therefor doing absolute good is the most likely way to receive it and spread it to others.

    So a result may be relatively good for you but not absolutely good for everyone including you however your article puts a spin on the topic confusing the line due to impossible relative scenarios with a absolute variable. You should be asking if people would give up the top 1% to give to the 99% and eliminate the bottom 1% or more. In other words is equality better? You will find it is.

    Result will be people should be looking to raise the line of an absolute good overall life and relative good overall life will follow.

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