Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better: When Comparing Yourself to Others Is a Bad Idea
People who do better than us in school and at work can inspire us. But in some circumstances, comparing our performance to others makes us do worse than if we were on our own.
Our friends, colleagues, and classmates are like yardsticks. We constantly compare ourselves to other people to figure out how well we’re doing and where we are on our path.
These comparisons can poke us into changing how we behave, because they orient us toward what we think is “normal.” As Harvard psychologists Todd Rogers and Avi Feller write:
“People frequently conform to what they perceive to be the typical behaviors of other people (see Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004).
For example, when people perceive that they use more energy than their neighbors, they tend to reduce their energy use (Allcott & Rogers, 2014; Schultz, Nolan, Cialdini, Goldstein, & Griskevicius, 2007); when people hear that most people vote, they become more motivated to vote (Gerber & Rogers, 2009); when people learn that people similar to themselves reuse resources, they tend to reuse resources (Goldstein, Cialdini, & Griskevicius, 2008); and when students see reductions in school harassment, they become less likely to engage in harassment (Paluck & Shepherd, 2012).”
These are all examples of people making positive changes in their lives.
But sometimes, comparisons aren’t so helpful.
When Comparisons Go Wrong
Rogers and Feller explored situations where upward comparisons (comparing yourself to someone better than you) zap your motivation and even make you give up.
They wrote a paper called “Discouraged by Peer Excellence” that suggests when a student is exposed to extra-excellent work by their classmates, they become less motivated and are less likely to succeed. Why? Because in some cases, they think the excellent work is the new average. So they begin to believe that their own performance is below-average, and that amazing work is out of their reach.
In the first study, they asked students in an online course to write an essay and then grade it themselves. Then, they graded three essays written by their peers.
When a student evaluated high-quality essays, they were more likely to drop out of the course than when they evaluated average-quality essays.
The essays at the top of class had a dramatic effect on graders. The pass rate for people who reviewed average essays was 68%. It dropped a little to 64% when the essays were slightly better than average. But here’s the clincher. The pass rate plummeted to 45% for students who reviewed essays that were the best in the class.
(Interestingly, evaluating poor essays didn’t make a student more likely to pass the class. This effect wasn’t explored further.)
The researchers replicated this effect and attempted to explain it with a second study, which used experimental conditions. Participants wrote an essay, then evaluated 2 more essays written by other people. (These peer essays had already been scored by independent reviewers for consistency, instead of participants like in the first study.)
Next, the researchers asked the participant-graders whether they believed they could write an essay as good as the one they’d just read. The people who graded excellent essays were less likely to believe they could write a good essay.
They were also more likely to “drop out” by declining the opportunity to write a follow-up essay for a prize.
Recognizing Excellent as Excellent, Average as Average
Rogers and Feller argue that this “discouraged by peer excellence” effect happens when two factors are present:
One, when you’re comparing yourself to an outlier of truly excellent work.
Two, when you don’t know it’s an outlier.
Because when you don’t know that amazing work is out of the ordinary, you assume it’s average and shift your perception of what is normal performance.
This, in turn, causes you to question your own competence, which lowers your motivation. There is a strong connection between competence and motivation: when we think we’re good at something, we’re more likely to accept it as an important part of who we are and stick with it over the long term, like practicing a sport for years. When we don’t think we’re good at it, we’re more likely to give up on it.
So we can be cautious about certain situations in our lives that cause us to compare ourselves. Perhaps grading peer essays in a class isn’t so helpful for academic achievement. Meanwhile, awards like “Employee of the Month” may not be so harmful. After all, everyone knows that the employee who gets “best employee” is exactly that: the best. It’s an outlier, and it’s okay if you don’t perform as well as they do.
Regardless, perhaps we can protect ourselves from this effect with growth mindset. Everyone is on a unique path and started theirs at different times. If you’re on the beginning of your journey to become a writer, a basketball player, or a good student, don’t compare it to the middle of someone else’s.