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The English language has a saying, “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence,” which describes a problem that people face when they try to compare their own situations to those of other people. A man might look at his neighbor's yard and consider it to be more luscious than his own, but at the same time the neighbor might feel that his own yard is the inferior one. While the proverb deals with the issue of social comparisons, it is worth noting that, in the specific instance of comparing lawns, there is a simple physical reason why a viewer might perceive the grass on the opposing side of a fence as being greener than the grass on the side from which the observation is made: blades of grass are aligned vertically, so a viewer observing grass on the opposing side of a fence would be looking straight at the blades, whereas observing the grass on the same side of the fence would involve looking straight down and peering through the blades, allowing for the color of the soil underneath to mix with the color of the grass (this same effect would not happen with a smooth texture such as snow, and it is worth noting that there is no saying about the snow always being whiter on the other side of the fence) (Pomerantz, 1983). The proverb, however, is not used exclusively to describe the appearance of grass when viewed at different angles—it is colloquially used to describe the perceptual distortion that occurs when comparing one's own situation to that of another. Alternatively, since maintaining a healthy lawn requires skill and dedication, the proverb could also mean that other people always seem to be better at what they do than we are (in this situation, they appear to be more skilled at gardening). Both of these interpretations contrast with the well-known “above average effect” where the majority of people estimate that their skills in tasks such as driving are superior to those of most of the population. This effect would predict the opposite results from what the proverb in question would predict. I looked at two different studies so that I could address both meanings. The first study, Is the
grass always greener on the other side? Social comparisons of subjective well-being (Goetz et. al., 2006), dealt with the former definition by asking people from two different cities how happy they were and how happy they thought people were in the other city. The second study, Effects of Standards on Self-Enhancing Interpretations of Ambiguous Social Comparison Information (Klein et. al., 2006), dealt with the latter definition by examining how people distort estimates of their own abilities when given information about their own and others' performance which is not easily interpreted. Both studies took great effort to control for confounding factors so as to isolate and measure the elusive effects that they were studying. Goetz et. al. (2006) produced a questionnaire about subjective well-being (SWB) which they distributed to citizens of Munich and Venice, using city of residence as a quasi-independent variable. The questionnaire was designed to measure four dependent variables: the subject's general SWB (How happy are you?), the subject's city-specific SWB (How happy are you with Munich/Venice?), the subject's estimation of the SWB of the fellow residents of that city (How happy do you think people are in Munich/Venice?), and the subject's estimation of the SWB of residents of the other city (How happy do you think people are in Venice/Munich?). The questionnaire actually measured not only the affective component of SWB (How happy are you?), but also the cognitive component (How content are you with your life?), and compared the results to the well-established Satisfaction With Life scale (Pavot & Diener, 1993) to ensure that the questionnaire measured what they wanted it to measure. The authors also went to great length to ensure that the German and Italian translations of the questionnaire were as identical as possible. This authors were looking at two different theories that described observations of the aboveaverage effect in experiments on social comparison. The first theory was the motivated process of selfenhancement, which holds that people distort their perceptions so as to inflate their self-worth. If this theory was correct, participants would rate their SWB as higher than everyone else's. The second theory was the nonmotivated process of egocentrism, which holds that people simply have more
information about themselves than they do about others and as a result have more reasons to give themselves high ratings than to give others high ratings. The authors believed that this would also cause people with high SWB to say that they're happier others, but that people with low SWB would say that they were less happy than others. Since people know more about residents in their own city than they do about residents of the other city, the effect on evaluations of SWB of residents in the other city would be even stronger than on that of residents in the participant's own city. The study found that people in the lowest quartile of SWB rated their SWB as lower than that of other residents of the same city, while people in the other three quartiles rated their SWB as being higher than that of other residents. There was no effect on ratings of SWB of residents in the other city: the ratings were consistent across all levels of personal SWB—everyone rated it as slightly above the midpoint. The authors still concluded that their results supported the egocentrism theory of the aboveaverage effect, as the predicted results occurred for residents of the same city, and the results for evaluations of the other city disconfirmed the competing self-enhancement theory as it would predict that people would want to believe that their own city is better. In terms of the proverb in question, this means that the grass on the other side of the fence is greener if and only if the grass on your side is below the 25th percentile of grass greenness, but that the grass beyond the horizon is at a set level of greenness regardless of the color of yours or your neighbor's grass. The authors suggested that unexpected results might be due to the fact that, since Venice and Munich are both tourist destinations, residents of either city tend to hear a lot of positive things about the other city but rarely come across negative information. Therefore, a better interpretation might be that the grass you read about in a brochure is at a set greenness, but further studies would be necessary to evaluate the grass in places that do not have their own brochures. Since people rarely advertise U of M at MSU, we would expect the grass at MSU to be greener than the grass at U of M. Having sufficiently addressed the first interpretation of the proverb, we can now examine the second interpretation. It is a well-known fact that gold and bronze medalists tend compare downwardly
and are therefore happy with themselves because they think about all the people they beat, whereas silver medalists tend to be unhappy because they compare upwardly and think about the gold medalists who beat them. Klein et. al. (2006) examined ambiguous information to determine what might cause a person to compare upwardly or downwardly when it is unclear which person is better. To do this, the authors gave the subjects tests with multiple sections and then showed what they claimed to be the subject's score in each section as well as what they said were another person's scores in each section. The scores that the experimenters said were the subject's averaged out to the same number as the scores that they said belonged to the other person. This parallels nicely with grass comparisons because it can be difficult to determine the overall greenness of a lawn when not all blades are equally green. The experimenters manipulated ambiguity by providing scores that were close together for the low ambiguity condition (e.g. 59, 67 63) and scores that were farther apart for the high ambiguity condition (e.g. 87, 30, 72). In every condition, the scores would average to the same number (63 in my example) but the subjects were given a long enough list of numbers and a short enough time to make their evaluations that they could not calculate the averages manually and thus they were not aware that what was presented as their score was the same as the score they were told belonged to someone else. The study actually contained two experiments. In the first experiment, the subjects were given ten passages and instructed to identify as many spelling errors as they could in each one. After taking the test, the experimenter returned with what he said were the results. The subject received either an ambiguous (scores were spread out) or unambiguous (scores were close together) report of his or her own performance, as well as either an ambiguous or unambiguous report of what the experimenter said was the average person's performance. In addition, the subject either received both reports at the same time (synchronous condition), or received his or her own scores first and then the average scores a few minutes later (asynchronous condition). In the synchronous condition, the subject completed a questionnaire which involved estimating the subject's own score, estimating the average score, and assessing how his or her own performance compares to the average performance on a scale of 1 (did
much worse than average) to 7 (did much better than average). In the asynchronous condition, the subject estimated his or her own score after receiving the results, then was given what were said to be the average results and estimated the average score and assessed comparative performance on the same 1-7 scale that subjects used in the synchronous condition. The results showed that subjects tended to report their own scores as being roughly the same as the average score except in the condition where the subject's score was high in ambiguity, the average score was low in ambiguity, and both scores were given at the same time (which is the combination of conditions that the authors hypothesized would produce this effect). In this instance, the subjects estimated their own scores as being higher than in the other conditions, while they gave the same estimate of average score that they would have given otherwise. If it's hard to tell how green your lawn is, but you have a pretty good idea of how green your neighbor's lawn is, then you'll estimate your lawn as being greener, although this only works if you look at your lawn and your neighbor's lawn at the same time. The second experiment replaced the synchronous-asynchronous condition with a prior beliefs of skillfulness condition. Subjects were told either to guess at the preferences of a fellow student at their university (the subjects were students at the University of Pittsburgh) or to guess at the preferences of a much older person who lived nowhere near the university (a 40-year-old living in Sacramento, California). Obviously, the subjects would feel more confident in evaluating the former than the latter, but the experimenters confirmed this with a questionnaire anyway. As predicted, the effect of ambiguity on score estimations that was observed in the first experiment occurred only when the subjects were given the task for which they felt more confident in their abilities. In addition, subjects actually gave themselves higher score estimates when they were evaluating the 40-year-old—perhaps because they did better on the task than they had expected—and gave themselves even higher estimates when the results they received on their own performance were more ambiguous. The authors theorized that this could be due to the fact that, since the subjects did not expect to do well, the unexpected high scores they got stood out to them more than the expected low scores. If you don't consider yourself to
be a particularly skilled gardener, you'll estimate that your lawn is greener than if you consider yourself to be an expert gardener. This is especially true if the greenness of your lawn is ambiguous, as you'll tend to notice the greenest blades more than the less green ones. If you think you're an expert gardener, you'll be more aware of the flaws, and you'll tend to notice the blades that are the least green. The grass, as we can clearly see now, is not always greener on the other side—it is only greener on the other side in certain situations. The egocentrism theory holds that, since we are more familiar with our own lawn than our neighbor's because we mow it and water it ourselves, we will have a stronger concept of its greenness than of the greenness of any other lawn, anywhere in the world! Only if we have an unusually brown lawn do we feel that the grass on the other side is greener. Unusually brown means that it either browner than most lawns, or that it is browner than we expected it to be given how good we think we are at gardening. The tables from these studies suggest that, most of the time, we consider the grass to be greener on our side, even if the extent to which we think this is not statistically significant. Furthermore, there are ways that the grass on our side can become greener without watering it more or using fertilizer, but only we would be able to see the improvement. The articles I examined pretty conclusively disproved the proverb—except when standing on one side of an actual fence and looking at actual grass—but it would be fun to do some follow-up studies to understand these effects better. The authors of the first study suggested repeating the experiment in two cities that are not popular tourist destinations, which would be great because then we could determine if the grass is always has the same greenness beyond the horizon or if this only happens when we hear other people rave about it. I would also like to do some studies comparing personal possessions such as cars or houses to see if different rules apply with those types of things. I also wonder if we would see the same effects in other cultures—these studies only evaluated people from Western culture. Finally, it would be pretty hilarious to do studies that specifically ask people to evaluate grass.
Pomerantz, J. R. (1983). The grass is always greener: an ecological analysis of an old amorphism. Perception, 12(4), 501-502. Goetz, T., Ehret, C., Jullien, S., & Hall, N.C (2006). Is the grass always greener on the other side? Social comparisons of subjective well-being. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(4), 173186. Klein, W. M., Monin, M. M., Steers-Wentzell, K. L., & Buckingham, J. T. (2006). Effects of Standards on Self-Enhancing Interpretations of Ambiguous Social Comparison Information. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 28(1), 65-69.
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