One of my students, who had a difficult week, mentioned that s/he was looking around for “downward social comparisons” to feel better. This phrase comes from the social psychology literature on motivations. The idea is that people are motivated by how they perceive themselves doing on some criterion relative to others. More recent versions of this distinguish between downward and upward comparisons.
This incident reminded me of one of my favorite stories. It was told by Arlo Guthrie back in the late 60s, around the time he became famous not for being the son of Woody, but for being the composer and performer of “Alice’s Restaurant”. AR is a long (18 minute) story told to a strummed motif, a “zygote of a melody” (to paraphrase Ani Difranco). Arlo told lots of stories less famous, too. One he would tell before singing “The Pause of Mr. Clause” (which is a song about how the FBI would be very suspicious of Santa Clause (sic), given his long beard, red clothes — is he a commie? — and what’s in that pipe that he’s smoking, anyway?). The story is the classic downward social comparison story. Here it is, copied from the version published in This is the Arlo Guthrie Book (Amsco Music Publishing, NY, 1969):
“During these hard days and hard weeks, everybody always has it bad once in a while. You have a bad time of it and you always have a friend that says, ‘Hey, man, you ain’t got it that bad. Look at that guy!’ and you look at that guy and he’s got it worse than you. And it makes you feel better that there’s somebody that got it worse than you. But think of the last guy! Nobody’s got it worse than that guy! Nobody in the whole world! That guy — he’s so alone in the world that he doesn’t even have a street to lay in for a truck to run him over. Nothin’s happenin’ for that cat!
And all that he has to do to create a little excitement in his life is to bum a dime from somewhere, call up the FBI, say ‘FBI’ — thay say, ‘Yes’…say, ‘I dig Uncle Ho and Chairman Mao, and their friends are comin’ over for dinner!’ Click. Hang up the phone. And within two minutes (and not two minutes from when he hangs up the phone, but two minutes from when he first put the dime in) they got 30,000 feet of tape rolling! Files on tape. Pictures, movies, dramas, actions on tape — and then they send out half a million people all over the entire world…the globe…to find out all they can about this guy!
‘Cause there’s a number of questions involved in this guy. I mean, if he was the last guy in the world, how’d he get a dime to call the FBI? There are plenty of people that aren’t the last guys that can’t get dimes! He comes along and he gets a dime! I mean, if he had to bum a dime to call the FBI, how was he gonna serve dinner for all those people? How could the last guy make dinner for all those people? ANd if he could make dinner, and was gonna make dinner, then why did he call the FBI?
They find out all of those questions within two minutes! And that’s a great thing about America. I mean, this is the only country in the world — well, it’s not the only country in the world that can find stuff out in two minutes, but it’s the only country in the world that would take two minutes for that guy! Other countries would say, ‘Hey — he’s the last guy. Screw him.’ But in America, there is no discrimination and there is no hypocrisy ’cause they’ll get anybody. And that’s a wonderful thing about America.”