Are you rich? It all depends on comparisons

Philip Zimbardo in conversation with Emilia Kaczmarek and Filip Rudnik · 11 June 2018

Emilia Kaczmarek: Are you happy with the amount of money you have on your disposal?

Philip Zimbardo: More than happy. I was born in 1933, during the Great Depression. I grew up in family of second generation Sicilian immigrants in New York City’s ghetto in the South Bronx. We were in poverty. We had food stamps and clothes from the government – it was like being a beggar. Because we were Sicilians, we always had pasta – pasta with butter, pasta with beans, pasta with tomato sauce – so we never were hungry, but we always had old clothes. It was humiliating.

As a child, it was clear to me – the only way out of poverty is to become educated. My parents had never even gone to high school. The idea was, as soon as you could, you go to work — if only there was a job. And I thought the opposite – as soon as you could, you go to school, then graduate as well educated and then you could get a good job. My father was always saying I’m lazy, that I’m going to school because I don’t want to work. That was the mentality back then.

Filip Rudnik: So how much money is enough now?

It’s like that: I have enough money when I don’t need to think about it. So, if I go to the restaurant, I never look at the price of the meal, I just look on what’s interesting. Having enough money is to never think of the cost of something. But I was also happy with much of my life because I had a loving family even when I was materially poor, but not as happy as I am now.

FR: Today’s experts try to estimate the amount of money that person needs to have in order to be happy. Do you think it’s possible to measure it?

For some people obviously it’s never enough, they want to have a bigger house, drive a better car or buy a private jet. But I think everyone needs a certain amount of money to take care of your basic needs: a nice home, transportation, good food and other essentials for a good quality of life.

FR: Some kind of safety?

Yes, enough money for your insurance for example. But the real problem with money and happiness is the social comparison: do I compare myself with really rich people? Do I compare myself with other academics or with movie stars and athletes? In America, a professional athlete – an average one – makes more in 1 year than a top professor earns in 20 years. That hurts me.

So I try to compare myself with other academics. Now again, if you’re a professor of psychology, you don’t earn so much as the professor of engineering or the professor of medicine. One could say – “Oh, I should have gone into medicine”. But no, I’m a psychologist, and I’m happy with that, I don’t want to do anything else. That’s the main thing, the social comparison – with whom do you compare yourself?

Phot. Alexas Fotos. [Source:].

EK: You’ve mentioned the basic needs. I think a lot of people heard about Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – the so-called Maslow pyramid – is there any other widely recognized hierarchy of needs in the recent theory of psychology?

I think nothing has replaced Maslow’s pyramid – it’s starting with survival needs, but when we’re reaching the top of it, it’s not about money – it’s more about: do you think well of yourself, do you live a meaningful life, do you feel self-actualized?

For me, my happiness comes from being able to make other people happy. By doing simple deeds of kindness, caring and remembering things that are important for other people For example, on my calendar I have many people’s birthdays. When I send them birthday wishes they’re amazed! They know I am really busy, but I take just 2 minutes to say: “Happy birthday, I hope it’s going to be a good year for you”.

EK: Speaking of being busy – the majority of people seem to accept that we have to work 8 hours a day or more. We seem to value wealth and consumer goods more than leisure and free time. Do you think people should seek to work less to be happier, like 6 hours a day for example?

Yes, but I don’t know the exact number of hours. The old notion of the 8 hours workday has changed. In fact, you’ve been spending 10 hours away, because you were going back home 2 hours during the heavy traffic, then you were tired, your children wanted to play, while you wanted to sleep and rest. Whereas working with numbers or ideas doesn’t have to be in a place away from home.

On the other hand, going to work means meeting other people. You’re having lunch together with your colleagues, you talk about politics, sports, women talk about men, men talk about women, whatever. Now, if you work at home, you’re socially isolated. And this is a big problem for men – because of that, men are increasingly socially isolated. A lot of research shows that many men have no friends at all – they’re simply lonely!

FR: These people – especially working class – would have to adapt to the next dramatic change, connected with the recent improvements such as AI or robots. The future work conditions will be therefore harder – people will have no work and possibly no life goals. Is there any way to prevent us from the “job emptiness”?

The automotive industry, where America used to rule the world, has significantly declined in value. Now, the American industry tries to come back – GM, Chevrolet, Ford – but for every person on the assembly line, there are 9 robots. In the end, they would try to replace that one remaining person – so, there won’t be any jobs anymore! This is going to happen in any workplace, where we can replace people with robots. You’re just programming them and make them do whatever you want to do – you just put some “oil” into the machine and that’s it. Machines don’t get tired. More and more jobs will be replaced by robots. It is the permanent threat to workers everywhere being replaced by AI- artificial intelligence.

FR: How should we adapt to it? By education?

I don’t know! I’m only saying that it’s clearly coming. If you want to make a profit, you want to get rid of salaries, sick leaves, worker’s benefits. So, many businesses are trying to get rid of their usual workers. You maximize the profits by minimizing manpower.

And that problem is not only about money – because for many people their self-image is their job! If I ask you – “Hello, who are you?” you will be going through all of these things: I’m Polish, I’m a man, I support a particular politician, but at the top of that is the answer to the question What is the job I do?”. Our social identity is our job description.

EK: Today we often hear that we should teach people to gain new skills and be prepared to change a profession several times a lifetime.

But who would do it? Nowadays we have more and more online education – you don’t have to employ a lecturer that would teach physically – they just make a video and put it online. That eliminates jobs for 10 or more professors. We used to think that we always would need teachers – yes, we will need them, but not as a physically present persons. They can make a video of me or even a cartoon of me, teaching. Moreover, many students say it’s better – because they can replay it!

We need to answer the following questions: what is important in this 21st century? What skills are needed? What’s missing in Poland? Plumbers and electricians! If you’re building a house, it’s almost impossible to get a Polish plumber or electrician! But here, skills have also had a social class – nobody in Poland wants to work with their hands, because it’s associated with the lower class. Even though plumbers and electricians get a huge amount of money on hourly wages!

FR: So here – according to the social class of jobs – we’re back to the social comparison and that’s why people don’t want to be a plumber?

Exactly! I have a friend, who is building a house in Wrocław and she can’t get a plumber! She has called many people, but can’t get an electrician to finish the wiring as well! The government will have to once again develop technical schools that Poland used to have! Schools that teach technology, but not just computers – basic things which you need in order to build houses, and which will not be easily replaced by robots, because they are not made on the assembly line.

EK: Since we’re talking about Poland – a few years ago, in one of the interviews, you said that when you come to Poland you have an impression that you are in a psychiatric hospital – everyone is so sad, nervous, people don’t talk to each other, they don’t smile. Do you see any change in this matter?

That was a misrepresentation of my words, I’ve never used the words “psychiatric hospital”! But I have to say that Polish people are now less openly happy than they were earlier and I’ve been coming here for the past 30 years. You’re going into the elevator and nobody says hello, holds the elevator for you, asks what floor you’re going to. Polish people seem to be more isolated than in the past. I mean, they don’t smile as much. In this hotel restaurant, there was a wonderful pianist, really brilliant one. I was listening to him and turned to the people sitting nearby and asked – “Isn’t that wonderful”? They just nodded silently! And no one applauded the end of each song—except me.

FR: So it’s getting worse?

Obviously, my experiences are very limited, but over time people in Poland seem to be less socially connected – or interested in making such connections at least. Yesterday, I was signing my new book during the Warsaw Book Fair – and people were really interested in talking with me, as a celebrity. But if I’m walking down the street and I ask for directions, they’re responding very briefly or not at all.

EK: Do you have any ideas why it is so?

Dr. Agnieszka Wilczyńska, my colleague in Katowice, has made new research on Polish children who feel socially excluded. It really started when many Polish men went abroad to work, leaving their family behind. In some cases, they’ve started new families there, married new women. Many of those children felt rejected – “My father did not choose me”.

Other kids felt excluded in school – they weren’t pretty or athletic enough. The studies showed that at least a million Polish youth are feeling excluded. Just imagine young children feeling that nobody wants them. There’s nothing that can be worse. Such a child says, “My family doesn’t want me, I have no friends”. It’s truly sad and I think that nothing has been done about it either by the educational system in Poland or by businesses.