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The Comparison Game - On Display at an Airport Near You

If you’ve been through an airport recently, chances are you’ve seen a real-world display of the “Comparison Game”—that quicksand of Level Two ego-comparative competition. In fact, it seems the airlines have carefully engineered marketing programs that set up a Comparison Game competition every time they board a flight. Just imagine the familiar scene at the boarding area of a commercial flight.

As departure time nears, the seats at the gate are full, and many people are standing in the aisles. The gate agent speaks, “Folks, this will serve as your pre-board announcement. Please take a moment to locate the zone on your boarding pass.  Please remain seated until your zone is called. We’ll begin with our first-class cabin, then our premium flyers, followed by general boarding.”

Immediately, some well-heeled business types shuffle to the carpeted premium flyer lane, barely glancing up from their mobile devices.  They are winners, and they know it.  Their confidence isn’t lost on the other frequent flyers at the gate, who quickly hustle up to the line. This group stands close to the winners up front—but not too close. While they don’t want to be squeezed out by the general boarding crowd, few things are as embarrassing as having to step aside and let a higher status passenger pass by. They’re caught in between.

All this nervous energy makes the rest of the travelers fidgety. With that line of premium flyers up at the gate, will there even be any room left on the plane?   Several more people clamor up to the boarding area and form a crowd, grumbling and spilling out into the main hall of the terminal.

The gate agent speaks again. The winners square up for their red carpet walk. The caught-in-between’s shuffle nervously. The general boarding crowd strains to hear the announcement, anxious and confused.

“I’d like to first welcome those needing extra assistance or travelling with small children,” the agent squawks.  A hush falls over the crowd.
A young woman rushes over to aid an elderly man who is straining to rise from his seat. She helps him up, takes his hand, and walks him to the ticket reader. Then she quietly walks around to the back of the very back of the line.  As the winners, losers, and caught-in-between’s grumble, gripe, and jockey, she boards with a smile, makes her way to the seat that was assigned to her, satisfied and at peace.
Isn’t it ironic how the all the players in the Comparison Game lose in the end? The only real winners are those who rise above it all and orient their lives fundamentally toward Level 3 and Level 4 happiness.

Mike Christie is a professional consultant and member of the Spitzer Center board of directors.