Does knowing what your peers make matter to how happy you are? Certainly, the utility functions that I sketch in Econ 300 say no. As Ray Fisman puts it in a recent piece at Slate, “Why do we care what those around us make? It doesn’t affect the real estate or furniture or sushi dinners we can afford.”
On the other hand, of course it matters. And Fisman continues:
[I]n recent years, economics has become both more social and behavioral, borrowing evidence and ideas from elsewhere in the social sciences. Economists now acknowledge that we constantly judge our own accomplishments in comparison to others, and salaries serve as one ready benchmark. People (and perhaps monkeys, too) are also averse to inequality—unequal pay for equal work just isn’t fair (especially if you’re the one who drew the short straw).
Fisman talks about an ingenious study by group of economists, including David Card and MacArthur genius grant winner Emmanuel Saez, that investigated how differences in pay affect variables like job satisfaction. If you are interested in how economists think about these things and how they evaluate them empirically, this paper is worth checking out. The abstract is below the fold:
Economists have long speculated that individuals care about both their absolute income and their income relative to others. We use a simple theoretical framework and a randomized manipulation of access to information on peers’ wages to provide new evidence on the effects of relative pay on individual utility. A randomly chosen subset of employees of the University of California was informed about a new website listing the pay of all University employees. All employees were then surveyed about their job satisfaction and job search intentions. Our information treatment doubles the fraction of employees using the website, with the vast majority of new users accessing data on the pay of colleagues in their own department. We find an asymmetric response to the information treatment: workers with salaries below the median for their pay unit and occupation report lower pay and job satisfaction, while those earning above the median report no higher satisfaction. Likewise, below-median earners report a significant increase in the likelihood of looking for a new job, while above-median earners are unaffected. Our findings indicate that utility depends directly on relative pay comparisons, and that this relationship is non-linear.