The Psychology of First World Problems

A phrase has appeared on the internet recently. Someone posts a Facebook status update complaining about a less than perfect hazelnut latte, and in the comments some one will point out that this is a First World Problem.
Oliver Burkeman has an interesting column in the Guardian on the psychology behind this.

He starts with the furore caused by a very very rich American Tom Perkins comparing criticism of the richest 1% to Nazi persecution of the Jews (completely ignoring Godwin’s Law).

Perhaps you recall the furore a few weeks ago when Tom Perkins, a stratospherically wealthy venture capitalist from San Francisco, wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal, comparing criticism of America’s ultra-rich to Kristallnacht. Yes, that Kristallnacht. The Nazi one. Perkins apologised, but in an editorial the Journal claimed the uproar proved his point: “Maybe the critics are afraid that Mr Perkins is on to something?” Maybe. Or maybe it was a very stupid comparison, made only marginally less offensive by its absurdity.

He puts this incredible touchiness among the 1% down to the fact that they surrounded by lackeys and flatterers – like the editorial writer in the Wall Street Journal – employed to blow sunshine up the arse of the rich. They never hear criticism, they are never told they could be wrong, when criticised or told that they are wrong they take it incredibly badly.

I remember a story that our then Union Convener told me. He had encountered two members of the higher echelons of the company’s management in a hotel bar. While remaining perfectly civil about it he told them exactly where they were wrong why they were wrong and what they needed to do to put things right. He said that the primary reaction he received from them was shock, shock that someone had the effrontery to tell them something that they didn’t want to hear, and probably shock at the fact that a person about ten pay grades below them was telling them and giving a good coherently argued case.

That accounts for the 1% reaction, but it doesn’t take into account the problem of the imperfectly prepared hazelnut latte.

Then again, if you’ve ever felt cross about the absence of your favourite brand of coffee at the supermarket, or frustrated by slow broadband, you’re doing something similar. In that sense, the tale of Tom Perkins is just an extreme illustration of how, to quote the comedian Louis CK, “everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy”. (He recalled a fellow aeroplane passenger complaining that the in-flight WiFi didn’t work. “But you’re sitting in a chair in the sky!”) Actually, he might have added, it’s worse than that, because the more amazing things get, the less it’ll take to make you dissatisfied.

This is where the problem lies, we have become used to a world of perfect hazelnut lattes and super-fast broadband and if the latte isn’t exactly to our taste, or it takes more than a nanosecond to download the latest pearls of wisdom from johnm55, we get annoyed. It applies to other, more serious, things. As Steven Pinker points out in the Better Angels of Our Nature we live in probably the least violent era in human history. As a result some things like domestic violence, which a century or even a few decades ago would have seemed unremarkable, are now seen as unacceptable. Because aggressive and violent behaviour is now fairly rare these things stand out.

Some bad phenomenon – workplace bullying, say – may strike us as appalling. But part of the reason it stands out is that aggressive behaviour in general is so rare, and our standards so high, compared with previous eras. In this area, high standards are a good thing, of course, since workplace bullying ought to be eliminated. When it comes to your slow broadband, you’re probably better advised to lower your standards. Yet, in both cases, it’s the excellence of the wider context that makes the flaw look so bad. And when your context is more privileged than that of almost any human in history, perhaps you stop being able to see how deranged it looks when you compare your critics to Hitler.

Or possibly a few lessons in self-awareness might help – for everyone.

The full article can be read here

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