There’s a ‘humorous saying’ in Psychology, which is ‘it’s all about your norm group’ (yeah, I can tell, you’re cracking up but bear with me :-)). When any kind of test or measurement tool is created in psychology, in order to make the result that an individual gets meaningful, that result is compared to the results of a group of people who have completed the tool in the past. Thus, a graduate who takes a numerical reasoning test may do well when compared to a group of A-level students, but score an average result on the same test when compared to a group of experienced accountants. Such a group is called a ‘norm’ or ‘comparison’ group.
In the same way, humans make comparisons all the time. We think we are making objective judgments about our situations and actions, but actually, when we make any judgement we have a comparison group in mind that slants our perceptions. Thus, when I think about my financial situation in the UK, I think I am comfortably off, when I compare myself to the Cambodians I met on my trip, I feel rich beyond imagining.
One thing that has therefore really been hammered home to me on my travels is how everything is relative.
Different norm group, different outcome
This first occurred to me standing in the supermarket toiletries aisle in Chiang Mai, looking at the many hundreds of ‘whitening’ products. In the UK, everyone wants to be browner, and there are many ‘tanning’ products, but here in Asia, people want their skin ‘whitened’. I felt pretty sad thinking about this, as it made me think how we’re never quite happy with what we are – but that the people who actually have what we want aren’t happy either!
It also made me realise that things really are relative. For me, my skin after 3 months in Asia is pretty tanned, but compared to others here, I’m translucent. Two different comparisons, two different outcomes.
In January, the early mornings and late nights here in Thailand are considered cold by locals (even some by of the ex-pats) – and they sometimes wear jackets, scarves, even hats. I think that time of day (about 23 degrees) is just perfect, and wear shorts and a t-shirt. My comparison group is the snow happening at the same time in England, their comparison group is the ‘Summer’ here, where it can hit 45 degrees at that same time of day.
Sometimes I think I’m quite busy here, when I have two or three activities on in a day, or some (self-imposed and optional) tasks like writing a blog post. And then I think back to when I was in the UK before my trip, working full time, and I realise that my pace of life has completely changed, and I’m a long way from busy. And I count my blessings.
One of the more popular responses of others when hearing my news of leaving my role and travelling for a while was how ‘brave’ I was. This elicited a mixture of emotions in me, and ironically, one of those was fear.
I think my initial response to this was the implication in the statement. Brave’s dictionary definition means ‘ready to face and endure danger or pain.’
I didn’t feel that I was at all ready to face danger or pain. In fact, I was thinking I’d run the other way if I came across any!
After reflecting on this for several months, I think it links to my ‘different norm group, different outcome’ theory. We think someone is brave if they do something that we think is scary. For me, this particular decision didn’t feel brave, I just felt like this was something I needed to do, whatever happened or the consequences. And watching others deal with things I feel are scary has made me realise that some people who I think are ‘brave’ (like those who let arachnids touch them for example!), don’t feel brave in themselves for doing those things.
But brave can also mean ‘showing courage’. And courage in turn means ‘the ability to do something which frightens one’. This takes the fear within ourselves – we’re no longer comparing it to external sources – as it’s all about us doing something that scares us. And this can be something big, small, momentous or inconsequential. Personal examples of things where I have felt (usually retrospectively!) courageous, that I know many friends wouldn’t have worried about at all, include:
- Writing and posting my first ever blog post
- Getting on the back of my friend’s scooter having never been on one before
- Putting pencil to paper for the first time in art class
- Turning up for a yoga session every day for a month even though I felt I was at the bottom of the (very flexible) class
- Pulling out into Chiang Mai traffic on my push-bike having only ridden the bike for a few minutes beforehand
- Going to the loo in the third cubicle I tried in a Cambodian road side ‘services’ despite having seen a massive (seriously massive) spider behind BOTH the first two doors I tried
- Sharing a sleeper carriage with a stranger on an overnight train from Bangkok to Surat Thani
- Having massage with not very many clothes on with only a thin cotton screen between me and the next person (a man)
- Deciding to stay longer in SE Asia, and fund myself by attempting to get work out here as a freelance consultant
- Snorkeling for the first time, in Cambodia off a boat
On the other hand, things that might have been seen as ‘brave’ by others but I didn’t feel needed courage from me include:
- Leaving the UK in the first place
- Travelling alone
- Doing acro-yoga in the park
- Staying in a 5 star hotel on business by myself
- Eating dinner alone in restaurants
- Going to the cinema by myself
- Going for (a lot) of massages in places I hadn’t been before, on my own
Change your comparison group
All this has made me think a lot, when making so call ‘objective judgements’ about my world, about what comparison group I am actually using. Expanding my perspective to use a bigger comparison group (and travel is great for this), or using a different one altogether, can change entirely the way I feel about something. Have a think about your own judgements – what comparison groups are you using?
I’ll end on a quote shared with me by a family member, a quote (in a form called a ‘grook’ – how can you not love that term!) which sums up my attitude to courage and the things that scare me personally since I’ve started travelling:
a thing you do
now or never —
which do you?