Don’t stop comparing: How measuring yourself against others can be helpful when done right!
We’ve all been there. Perhaps you’ve skimmed LinkedIn’s suggested connections, looking for folks that you know from your past and checking to see what they’re doing now. Or maybe you’ve been passed up for a promotion and found yourself wondering “why them and not me?”.
We all compare ourselves to others — it’s natural, normal and, in our social media-filled lives very, very, common. However, the conventional wisdom is that comparing ourselves to others is at best time wasted, and at worst damaging to our self-confidence and happiness. As Theodore Roosevelt saw it: “Comparison is the thief of joy”.
But is that true? Is clicking through Facebook and LinkedIn to see who from our high school got a good job, or watching an ambulance race by and feeling grateful that we’re not the person inside it really that bad for us? The short answer is that it depends.
Spending endless hours scrolling through social media comparing our life to our friends’ lives — or at least the curated versions they show online — isn’t the best use of our time, and recent studies in psychology have shown that this can indeed be emotionally damaging. A 2015 study by de Vries and Kühne, for instance, found that making social comparisons on Facebook is associated with lower self perceptions of social competence and physical attractiveness in young adults.
But comparisons are like scissors, potentially dangerous, but also useful when we learn to use them the right way. And we can learn how to use comparisons to build a more satisfying life for ourselves — the key is to use them intentionally. Intentional means noticing when we’re comparing, taking a moment to think about why and what we want out of it, and making real choices on how we go about it.
What are social comparisons?
The study of social comparisons has a long history in psychology, with a formal theory popularized in the 1950’s by Leon Festinger, and a massive number of research studies done across various domains such as economics, education, health, and organizational psychology — a quick Google Scholar search of “social comparison” will turn up ~150,000 results!
All this research has taught us that it’s natural to compare our opinions and abilities with other people, this is one of the many ways in which we evaluate ourselves. We learn by comparing. We look to each other to help us determine answers to questions like:
“Can I do this?”
“Will I like this?”
“How hard do I have to work to have this?”
It has also taught us that there are two different ways that social comparisons can be useful: either to motivate ourselves (comparing up), or to feel better about ourselves (comparing down).
Scientific studies support the use of social comparisons to help us improve ourselves, looking to people we think are doing better than us as a spur to get ourselves going. Research in education has found upward comparisons to predict better student motivation (Huguet, Dumas, Monteil, Genestoux 2001), as well as better job satisfaction, less burnout, fewer intentions to quit, and more adaptive emotions for teachers (Rahimi, Hall, Wang, Maymon 2017, and Brown, Ferris, Heller, & Keeping 2007).
One particular example of this is the use of role models. From a motivational theory of role modeling by Morgenroth, Ryan, & Peters (2015), role models serve an important role in comparisons by:
1. showing us how to do something (behavior models),
2. showing us that something is possible (representations of the possible), and
3. making something desirable (inspirations)
Bear in mind that role models can also be used as an example of what not to do if our goal is to avoid rather than attain something (Lockwood, Jordan, Kunda 2004).
Importantly, we’re more likely to compare ourselves to someone we think we’re similar to, as long as we can find at least one similarity between ourselves and them (Filstad 2004). Anyone from a colleague at a new job to a famous person who went to our high school can serve as a motivating social comparison. Important, though, is that we should compare up on things that we can control — it’s no good comparing ourselves to someone taller and wishing we were like them, but comparing ourselves to someone more successful because of some controllable trait — like their work ethic — can be very effective as a motivator.
The other way that social comparisons can be useful is in making us feel better about ourselves. Although it may sound harsh, we can feel better about our current situation by looking at someone else’s misfortune. Again, the thing to do here is to intentionally put our own problems into perspective by looking to someone else who is facing bigger challenges than we are. For example, a recent screw-up at work doesn’t seem so bad if we hear an ambulance rushing by and feel thankful that we’re not in need of urgent medical help.
As opposed to seeking similarities when comparing up, this is about seeking dissimilarities from those we perceive to be less fortunate than us (Suls, Martin, & Wheeler 2002). By being clear about how we’re different, and acknowledging that we’re luckier or in a better spot than they are, we can help ourselves get over whatever negative experience we are having.
How can we use comparisons?
Going back to where we started, it’s not that the conventional wisdom is wrong; comparison without a clear purpose can be very bad for us. But if we intentionally engage in it, social comparison can be a tool for motivating ourselves to achieve our goals and helping us feel better when we encounter obstacles along the way. Comparing ourselves with others is a natural and normal thing. We just have to take advantage of it and be in control — no more Facebook binges!
Some quick tips to do this right:
· Be aware of when you’re comparing ourselves to others and why you’re doing it: is this for motivation or to feel better?
· For motivation, find someone who is better than you at the thing you want to improve, but that isn’t so far away that you can’t see yourself achieving similar success — for example, you should compare yourself to the fastest person in your swimming club, but not to Michael Phelps.
· To feel better, find someone who is worse off, and with whom you can see clear differences — they’re in the ambulance, you’re not.
Remember, intentionality is all about assessing what you need and making choices. Sometimes comparing down may be useful to feel better, but complacency is the opposite of motivation, so as soon as you start to feel better, switch gears and start motivating yourself by finding someone to compare up to!
This article was written by Mike Ross and Rebecca Maymon and is part of Juniper’s series on how we can apply recent advances in psychology to our everyday lives.
de Vries, D. A., & Kühne, R. (2015). Facebook and self-perception: Individual susceptibility to negative social comparison on Facebook. Personality and Individual Differences, 86, 217–221.
Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7(2), 117–140.
Filstad, C. (2004). How newcomers use role models in organizational socialization. Journal of Workplace Learning, 16(7), 396–409.
Huguet, P., Dumas, F., Monteil, J. M., & Genestoux, N. (2001). Social comparison choices in the classroom: Further evidence for students’ upward comparison tendency and its beneficial impact on performance. European Journal of Social Psychology, 31(5), 557–578.
Lockwood, P., Jordan, C. H., & Kunda, Z. (2002). Motivation by positive or negative role models: regulatory focus determines who will best inspire us. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(4), 854–864.
Morgenroth, T., Ryan, M. K., & Peters, K. (2015). The motivational theory of role modeling: How role models influence role aspirants’ goals. Review of General Psychology, 19(4), 465–483.
Rahimi, S., Hall, N. C., Wang, H., & Maymon, R. (2017). Upward, downward, and horizontal social comparisons: Effects on adjustment, emotions, and persistence in teachers. Interdisciplinary Education and Psychology, 1(1): 10.
Suls, J., Martin, R., & Wheeler, L. (2002). Social comparison: Why, with whom, and with what effect? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(5), 159–163.