I had an interesting, and rather revelatory, experience this summer.
One of my passions is running. Well, to be more accurate, I like having run. While I'm out there, slogging up the hills and dripping sweat, I am most frequently asking myself why the hell I do this, when it is clearly painful, exhausting, and generally unpleasant. But afterward I always feel better, and every time I've raced I come home and signed up for more races.
As a friend of mine put it, it's a little like the guy who smacks his head on the wall because it feels so good when he stops.
In any case, in May I signed up for the One New York Challenge, a five-hundred-kilometer "virtual race" across New York, the proceeds from which were donated to COVID research. We had from May 15 to August 31 to finish, and there was a leaderboard that was updated daily to keep track of everyone's submitted mileage and times, so you could see how you ranked against other participants.
Well, this is where the trouble started. Because I'm not all that great at running -- I'll be up-front about that -- but I am insanely competitive. So every day I'd enter my miles (I run an average five miles a day, pretty much without exception), then immediately log on to the leaderboard to see how -- or if -- my place had shifted.
I ended up finishing the race way ahead of the deadline, with over a month to spare, crossing the finish line in 827th place overall (out of 6,428 participants), and in 30th place (out of 151) in my age class.
So reason to be proud, right? Not only finishing the race, but in the top fifteen percent out of everyone and in the top twenty percent in my age class.
But all I could focus on was thinking, "Holy shit. 826 people were faster than me."
Turns out I'm not alone in doing this, self-defeating as it is. A study this week in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science found that we feel much better about ourselves when we're big fish in a little pond than when we're little fish in a big pond -- even if our own skill level is the same in both situations.
In "Taking Social Comparison to the Extremes: The Huge-Fish-Tiny-Pond Effect in Self-Evaluations," by Ethan Zell and Tara Lesick of the University of North Carolina, we find out that we pay much closer attention to our in-group ranking (whatever the size and skill level of the group) than we do to how the whole group ranks against other groups. Put a different way, most of us are much happier ranking higher amongst peers who as a whole are mediocre than ranking lower amongst the elite.
And doesn't just affect our emotional states, it affects how we actually evaluate our own skill level. The setup of the experiment involved the administration of a verbal-reasoning test to students at a variety of colleges. Participants were given their scores, and two other pieces of information; how they ranked against other participants from their own college, and how their college ranked against other colleges. Afterward, each volunteer was asked how they felt about their performance, and to evaluate their own verbal-reasoning ability not just against their peers but in a general, global sense.
Naturally, high scorers at highly-ranked colleges were not only happy with their performance, but felt pretty confident about their skill. More interesting were the high scorers at low-ranked colleges, and the low scorers at highly-ranked colleges. The former had the same glowing assessment of their own skills and performance as the high scorers at highly-ranked colleges, while the latter were generally disappointed with their skills and performance -- even when the overall scores of the members of the two groups were similar.
It makes sense, I suppose, given our long history of tribalism. If Zog is competing against Thak in boulder-throwing, his rival's performance is right there in front of him, immediate and obvious. It's way less obvious (and often much less important in the here-and-now) if Zog's whole tribe is made up of elite boulder-throwers or if, to put it bluntly, they suck. I know it's always thin ice to attribute psychological tendencies to evolutionary history, but there's a good argument that the disappointment of the little-fish-big-pond experience is built into our brains by our having evolved living in small, tightly-knit groups.
In my own experience, being a mediocre racer in a very large group slowed me down for a bit, but (fortunately) hasn't stopped me. Three weeks ago I started a new challenge; to run four hundred miles in 108 days. (Five hundred kilometers -- 310 miles -- was apparently not enough, for some reason.) It's for a good cause -- my sign-up money goes to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. And there's swag to look forward to when I'm done, including another badly-needed race t-shirt, to add to the 793 race t-shirts I already own.
Twenty days in, I've already got 25% of the miles completed. I'm currently 192nd overall (out of 1,716 participants) and 8th in my age class (out of 30). Which is entirely unacceptable.
Time to get out running again and see if I can pass a few of these folks.
To the layperson, there's something odd about physicists' search for (amongst many other things) a Grand Unified Theory, that unites the four fundamental forces into one elegant model.
Why do they think that there is such a theory? Strange as it sounds, a lot of them say it's because having one force of the four (gravitation) not accounted for by the model, and requiring its own separate equations to explain, is "messy." Or "inelegant." Or -- most tellingly -- "ugly."
So, put simply; why do physicists have the tendency to think that for a theory to be true, it has to be elegant and beautiful? Couldn't the universe just be chaotic and weird, with different facets of it obeying their own unrelated laws, with no unifying explanation to account for it all?
This is the question that physicist Sabine Hossenfelder addresses in her wonderful book Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physicists Astray. She makes a bold statement; that this search for beauty and elegance in the mathematical models has diverted theoretical physics into untestable, unverifiable cul-de-sacs, blinding researchers to the reality -- the experimental evidence.
Whatever you think about whether the universe should obey aesthetically pleasing rules, or whether you're okay with weirdness and messiness, Hossenfelder's book will challenge your perception of how science is done. It's a fascinating, fun, and enlightening read for anyone interested in learning about the arcane reaches of physics.
[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]