Bryan Caplan  

Usually Look on the Bright Side of Life

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[Note: This post may be better if you hum as you read.]

I am a firm believer in the view that complaining about problems usually makes them worse. I have endured my fair share of bad service in restaurants, but that is nothing compared to how much I have suffered from the futile complaints of my fellow patrons. Why complain to me? I don't run the restaurant!

You could object that "If no one complained, nothing would improve." But that's hogwash. There are plenty of other mechanisms for progress. Most obviously: "If you don't like it here, leave," "If you don't like it here, don't come back," and "If you don't like it, change the channel."

I missed a post by Will Wilkinson that reinforces my position. One way to deal with envy, as Layard points out, is with higher taxes. Will points out an alternative: Reform your preferences:

If you cared less about where you stood with respect to other people, then how much money I make would have less of an effect on how you feel about how much you make. This is Coase's central insight about externalities: it takes (at least) two to tango. My relative success has no "polluting" effect whatsoever if you don't care about it. (You're a good Buddhist, say.)

Interesting. So while I've been complaining that complaining makes other people worse off, Will indirectly suggests that complaining makes you worse off. Complaining amplifies your frustration by keeping your attention focused on your grievances. Ah yes, I've heard complainers say that they feel better after they vent, but I doubt that works for recurring problems. You are far better cultivating the opposite mentality: "What's the big deal?"

But isn't it contradictory to complain about complaining?

Well, it would be if I said that complaining always makes problems worse. But I said usually. This just happens to be a convenient exception.


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Foolish Jordan writes:

Complaining to your friends may not be very productive, but complaining to the company or server about something can actually be very good. Imagine you are at a restaurant which you otherwise like except they always bring the soup with the meal instead of before like you would prefer.

You can stand up and say "Gosh darn it, I'm never coming to this restaurant again! The Invisible Hand of Adam Smith will teach them a lesson or two!". Or, you can complain to the waiter/manager that you want your soup before the main dish, dang it.

If they ignore your complaint, then that's too bad. But look what happens if they listen to your complaint and improve their service to bring the soup out before like they're supposed to. They've kept one valuable customer (you), you've kept (and improved!) a valuable restaurant on your list of acceptable eateries, and, as a bonus, if anyone else prefers their soup before (and you would expect this -- if someone is angry enough to complain, then on average there are dozens of other people who are still annoyed but not quite enough to complain), then their eating experience is improved as well, which is good for both the restaurant and the patrons!

A final thought: would your life be improved if you divorced your wife every time she did something a little bit annoying, or is it better to complain and try to get her to change?

Bruce Cleaver writes:

Wilkinson's Coaseian solution ("Change your preferences - it's the cheapest solution") is interesting, but if everybody adopted it there wouldn't be progress at all...

It's a Prisoner's Dilemma in a different guise.

Robert writes:

Response 1: But if everyone has changed their preference, progress has no utility, so that's OK.

Response 2: Actually, even if changing my preference is the cheapest option for me, it still has non-zero cost. If (as I suspect) preference-changing enjoys fewer economies of scale than "progress", then if there are enough of us, then progress becomes cheaper than preference-changing.

What is needed is an efficient means of determining whether there are enough of us. Complaining is such a means, but often not (I suspect) an efficient one.

eric writes:

that's Niebur's serenity prayer

I.S.S writes:

Why be so interested in progress, if it doesn't make you feel better?

Well, you've got Paul Krugman convinced. Last week he was griping about all the hidden unemployment in America. Today, he puts on a happy face over France's higher unemployment; it's French Family Values!

Bill Abbott writes:

There would still be 'progress' if people changed their preferences from a relative wealth standard to an absolute wealth standard.

Also, complaining may be linked with signaling social status: Only a lowly untouchable would accept such bad service, I had better raise my voice and complain lest I be mistaken for one.

Chaim writes:

Um, Professor Caplan, you're assuming that the point of complaining is to change things.

Hasn't it occured to you that some of us just like to complain? It's fun; it rids the room of its lazy languor and replaces it with virile vigor; it engages one's creative faculties; it brings problems to the foreground.

Complaining is a sport, an art; it is life itself.

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