Social Comparison

We all live on this Earth, and there is no surprise in saying that we are not alone. There are over 7 billion people on this earth right now, and we are perpetually surrounded by them. Whether going out in public, or even using social media on our phones and devices, it is near impossible to shut out the rest of the world. With this many people constantly surrounding us, it is natural to want to fit in and feel validated by the people around you. After all, humans naturally search for connection with others, and with that comes the want for us to be ‘worth connecting with’. This leads us to Social Comparison!

The Biology of Social Comparison

The Need to Feel Safe

Believe it or not, our brains are ingrained with the idea of Social Comparison, and we have parts of our brain dedicated to this…but it wasn’t always that way. Psychiatrist and Neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean looked into this back in 1952, and found that although the human brain has grown and evolved over time, we have still maintained the basic structures of the reptilian and limbic brain, including how we scan for safety. Over time, these ideas have been continually researched and we can find many links between social comparison and the structures of our brain. Neuroscientist Heidi Haskell has even looked into the concepts around how these parts of our brain function to see how it can be used for marketing to convince people they want to buy a product they otherwise might not want to…but more on that later…

Let’s go back in time about as far as the human race can go… Looking back to days of the cavemen. There is a part of our brain called the Reptilian Brain, which is used to control our body’s vital functions (heart rate, breathing, body temperature, and balance). In the early days it would keep us safe by identifying anything that could be a threat to us. For example; If we saw some kind of animal that could hurt us, the Reptilian Brain would sends signals to our brain to warn us of potential danger and incite our reactive responses (eg: hypervigilance, heart rate, adrenaline, etc.).

Over time, thanks to evolution, the context in which we used the Reptilian Brain has changed, and so its utility has evolved as well. Its function is still to scan for safety, however these days our definition of ‘safety’ has changed greatly. In a culture that puts an emphasis on social interactions and fitting into social norms, our Reptilian Brain now activates when we feel threatened by the judgments of others around us. When we break social norms, or think that we are outside of those norms, we feel unsafe, and our Reptilian Brain sends signals through our body, telling us “Something is wrong!”

That’s right! Just like your pet dog; the human race has been neurologically domesticated away from our traditional survival instincts, and into the vein of fitting in with society. Even the Cortex of our brain has done this. When in the early days it might have said to us ‘Lions are dangerous and a threat to our safety’, it now says ‘That person is better than you’.

The Happiness Generator

The Prefrontal Cortex is also a great friend of Social Comparison. In the last 2 million years our brains has tripled in size, and in that time the prefrontal cortex evolved from nothing…aren’t brains so cool?

Some scientists like to call the Prefrontal Cortex the ‘Happiness Prediction Simulator” because of its function. It can be seen as a decision maker, personality expression and planner for complex cognitive behavior, and when it comes to the concept of happiness it will try to predict what will make us the most happy in the future. It does this by looking for possible future factors and deciding what options will make us the happiest.

This sounds like a pretty great thing, but can be a huge hindrance in us experiencing anything new. You see; it makes predictions based on what it already knows. If an unknown factor is presented, it is unlikely to have a positive interpretation within this future simulation. When our Prefrontal Cortex compares the simulations, the unknown factor creates an impact bias, where we overestimate the hedonic impact of future events, and it makes you believe that a situation can hold a larger impact than it likely will in the long run.

So how does this relate to Social Comparison? Essentially, our Prefrontal Cortex wants us to be as safe and happy as possible, so it will focus on factors that have made us safe and happy in the past. If we focus heavily on Social Comparison, then it is likely that the times we have been the happiest have been when we are fitting in with others, so our Happiness Prediction Generator will tell us we are happiest when we are fitting in, and that we need to be more like others. When we’re not…can we be happy?

The Moving Cogs

A psychological concept that connects with Social Comparison is System 1 & 2 thinking. Each function can be defined as such:

  • System 1 – Operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control
  • System 2 – Allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. Subjective experience of agency, choice and concentration

So when we make an initial judgment about something we are using system 1 thinking, while the stuff that takes time to process uses System 2 thinking.

When we focus on Social Comparison we are using our System 1 thinking, which is a big part of our Happiness Generator as well. We are making a quick and automatic judgment about something based on previous experiences. If we are able to shift into System 2 thinking, we are able to process this judgment consciously and critically analyze what it is based on, while being more open to an alternative thought process.

The History of Social Comparison

It is a common tale from those who have travelled to impoverished countries for charity work, that the people are ‘happier’ living with a lot less than those in the first world…but are these ‘impoverished’ people really happier? Science points to no. Mark Manson offers that psychologists have found that even though the standard of living for first world people have advanced and raised dramatically in the last 50 years, the happiness of people has stayed the same. It hasn’t felt like this is the case because mental illnesses, anxiety disorders, narcissism and depression have all gone up.

Also illuminating, an article by Neuroscientists David G Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald offers that the Amish show the same satisfaction levels as the lives of Forbes 400 members (who usually have a high level of satisfaction), and have rates of depression that are ten-fold lower than the rest of the American population.  This is accredited to the Amish culture avoiding modern cultural norms, such as consumerism and the use of social media.

As the way we live has changed, we have begun comparing our lives to those around us. Think back to the medieval days, when people knew the social order and accepted it. If you were born a king, or even a peasant you knew where you stood, and rarely would someone try to fight that. While this still wasn’t an ideal framework to live by, it was easier to accept your place, rather than compare yourself to the lives of those who have more or less. Philosopher Alain de Botton studied this and found that people would accept their place given by their birthright, and believed ‘we can get whatever we work to get’, and therefore ‘we deserve what we have’. This is something that has changed drastically over the last few centuries.

Once we became a society based around consumerism, things began to change. We would look at what others had, and think we need the same things in order to be worthy of someone’s time. When marketing a product, you usually find that fear sells. There are so many advertisements on TV that offer the idea of ‘if you don’t have this product you are missing out’, or ‘if you have one product over another you will be superior’…even ‘buy this product or your friends will secretly dislike you’. These marketing tools are used for us to compare our worth to others and buy these products.

Social Media

With the invention of social media; people now have the ability to show off their life to anyone willing to follow them. However, people will usually only post the things you want to see, so you are unable to look into their full lives. Plus, with the introduction of filters, we can even hide the things we don’t want to show in plain sight! It is easy for people to make assumptions over the content we see on social media and compare it to our own lives, while only seeing through a small window of the person’s actual experience. 

We also receive validation by people happily reacting to our posts, as it shows that we are meeting social standards, and might even be ‘better’ than others. As a society that is now addicted to their phones we spend inordinate amounts of  time watching the lives of others and comparing them to our own.

The human race has evolved greatly over time as society has advanced. From the days when we accepted our fate blindly and could find comfort within the comfort of knowing our future,  we now turn to the validation of others (even people we will never meet) in order to define our own worth and find out place in the world. If we don’t fit in with key elements of society, how does that impact our self-esteem and sense of self?

Social Norms and Fitting In

The world is a huge place with many people in it, and every person has a different lens that they see the world through. Someone who was raised with strong religious values may hold a lens of Right and Wrong within their religion; someone who focuses on their work and financial success may hold the lens of applying value to those around them, and someone who is focused on how they look may hold the lens of what is beautiful and what isn’t. These are only a few generalized examples of how each person creates stories of value based on what they see in the world. When we apply values like those above, we are comparing everything around us to everything we have seen before, much like the Happiness Generator. This allows us to create meaning and understanding for the things around us, which also means that everyone holds different meanings or understandings of the same things. The more different the sub-culture or greater culture, the greater the dissonance is likely to be between self and other(s).

It is understandable that we all measure and compare the qualities and abilities of others by different standards; however, the key is to be aware of it. When we create consciousness around comparisons, we can endeavor to use our own internal metric. The more external our metric (using other people’s values in measurement rather than our own), the more likely we impact our own value and self worth. On the other side of this, it is also important to remember that other people do not measure with the same metric as us and so when we hold them to the same values and standards that we hold ourselves to, the potential exists for us to end up disappointed.

Case Study

I am a worker at a supermarket. I have been brought up with the values of timeliness and efficiency close to my heart, and that shows in the work that I do! Then there’s Reggie, who holds high values around beauty and order. When we are stocking the shelves I always finish well before Reggie. All the products are on the shelf and the job is completed. Reggie always takes longer, but the shelves he stocks always look immaculate.

Here are the possible outcomes of this observation:

  1. I add his metric externally to my comparison and question why his work always looks better than mine. The boss always likes how Reggie’s work looks so he must be the better worker… these external values lower my self-esteem.
  2. I use my metric and question why Reggie takes so long. I value efficiency, and complete the job as required in a faster time…Internal values that don’t align with another’s causing a disconnect.
  3. We both value different things and have different ways of working. Our jobs get done at the standard we both choose, and our differences don’t make anyone ‘better’ or ‘worse’ at their job. I understand the differences in our values and metrics.

When we hold divergent/unsatisfactory metrics, it can cause us to push our own ways of being onto others. We may wish to connect with others, and this is easier if they are more like us. This is especially the case for people that are passionate about a cause. Think of the entrepreneurs that believe everyone should quit their jobs and start something for themselves, or the born-again Christians that think everyone should behave like them to get into heaven. The same can be said for people with strong opinions on their own beliefs (e.g. politics, animal cruelty, gender, etc.). If you hold different beliefs it can cause a divide in connection, which can lead to a disconnect with the person you’re trying to be present with.

It is important to also note that we are usually selective with who we choose to compare ourselves to. Social Comparison is usually directed at someone who has similarities to us. I know I don’t compare myself to Amazonian tribes, or to the likes of Isaac Newton or the Buddha, and this is because they are too unlike me for me to find a comparison useful. We usually compare ourselves to people in our community, or communities similar to our own, because there is a measurable comparison available for us at that proximity. 

What’s Behind It

The Desire for Human Connection Behind our Comparison

Humans crave connection with those around them, and if people are like us it is easier to connect with them. In a world where we are all best friends, we could all follow the same metrics and beliefs as one other, which would make connecting with others a very simple process. If someone holds a different belief to you, and is trying to ‘convert you’ to their way of being it is important to remember that this is not a rejection of who you are, or judgment of your beliefs…it isn’t even about you!
A large need for this person in the moment is to connect with you. It all comes from a place of love…isn’t that sweet?

Mark Manson says it best with this quote:

“Accepting that others measure themselves and the world differently than you do is one of the most important steps to consciously choosing the right relationships for yourself. It’s necessary for developing strong boundaries and deciding who you want to be a part of your life and who you do not.”
https://markmanson.net/how-we-judge-others

The overall key is to remember that everyone holds a different metric and that as similar as yours may seem to someone else, no one holds things in the same way you do. We are all autonomous beings who will make our own choices. Embrace your own metrics. You are who you are because of them. And allow others to do the same.. If you are feeling resistant to connect with someone because of their metric or beliefs, hold yourself with compassion and allow yourself to accept that person for their differences. 

Searching Through the Well

We also look at comparison in our own negative metrics as well. It’s the idea that ‘If I am trash, so is everyone else’. For example, those who believe they are unattractive may look for the unattractive sides of others in order to feel better about themselves, or someone who is lazy may look for how others may cut corners at their job in order to feel better about themselves. Essentially, if we’re stuck at the bottom of a well, we may want to make sure we’re not the only ones down here…misery does love company after all.

Sonja Lyubomirsky said it best when she said:

“You can’t be envious and happy at the same time. People who pay too much attention to Social Comparisons find themselves chronically vulnerable, threatened, and insecure.”
https://www.optimize.me/plus-one/social-comparison-is-toxic/

In her studies she found that the happier a person was, the less attention they paid to how those around them were doing. When we compare we are usually focusing on what others have that we don’t. Whether that be personality traits, physical features, or external extravagances, we look at what is lacking in our lives. We also compare the other way, by looking at what we have that others don’t in the same categories. While this is a much better feeling, it causes us to look down on others which then cuts off our opportunity to connect with them. Lyubomirsky suggests that the happiest person is someone who is excited by the triumphs of their peers, and shows concern at their failures.

Social Comparison can become triggering when…

  • Someone similar to us achieves something we want
  • Others are praised in areas we would like praise in
  • We are unable to do something in the same way as someone else
  • We see others with something we want
  • We view others as ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than us
  • People receive different treatment to us
  • Someone has qualities that we want to have ourselves
  • We need support during times that others may not
  • Others have ‘more’ or ‘less’ than we do

The Yin to the Yang of Social Comparison

This section may paint a picture of social comparison as a strictly bad thing, and while there are certainly aspects that don’t serve us, it’s not all darkness and misery. Social Comparison can be quite a useful tool as well. Comparing us to others can guide us into areas of improvement. This can stem from looking at others for inspiration, or scaffolding. Other people can offer you a benchmark and information on how to excel yourself. It is all about how you hold it.

For example: if I want to improve at playing guitar I can look at people who are better than me and wish I was more like them. This will leave me on the negative spectrum of social comparison. While if I was to look up to them for inspiration or scaffolding I can be appreciative of their skill while fostering my own, and growing in a way I am excited about, and share a passion with another person.

What Now?

I’ll be completely honest with you; there is no quick fix or magical solution to Social Comparison. This is something that is ingrained within us, and it’s not something we can simply get rid of without a lobotomy. The best way to shift is to teach yourself how to manage it. If we can change our mindset around how and why we compare, then we can manage our reactions to when we compare. Below are a few tips and tricks to change our mindset, from a Psychology Today article “The Comparison Trap“:

  • Seek Connection, Not Comparison
    • Instead of passive scrolling, send private messages, talk about shared experiences, seek genuine emotional connection, and use social media in general to “foster the kind of relationships known to be valuable offline.
  • Look Up, Just a Little
    • Decades of research suggest that upward comparison can provoke motivation and effort; children who compare themselves to peers who slightly outperform them have produced higher grades, for instance.
    • Seeing that the path to improvement is attainable is key—you’re better off comparing yourself to someone a rung or two above you than to someone at the very top of the ladder.
  • Count Your Blessings
    • If you focus on the good things in your life, you’re less likely to obsess about what you lack.
    • “Conscious downward comparison.” For instance, compare yourself to your ancestors. 
    • “You don’t have to drink water full of microbes. You don’t have to tolerate violence on a daily basis. It’ll remind you that despite some frustrations, you have a fabulous life.”
    • Start a gratitude journal
  • Compare Yourself to…Yourself
    • There is a tendency amongst older people to measure themselves against their own past
    • “People who are happy use themselves for internal evaluation.” It’s not that they don’t notice upward comparisons, but they don’t let that affect their self-esteem, and they stay focused on their own improvement. 
    • “A happy runner compares himself to his last run, not to others who are faster.”
  • Pursue Upward-Joy

Final Thoughts

Let’s end this section with a story. Sandy lives near the beach, and so every day she likes to walk along the sand and enjoy the view. One thing she ends up looking at are the fancy houses of the people that are lucky enough to afford such large and extravagant houses in such a nice area. When she notices these houses, she is not thinking of her weekly budget, or how she will never afford a house like that. Her life isn’t even a part of the equation! She am simply admiring what someone else has, and while she is certainly thinking of the difference in lifestyle, she is not thinking of herself or them as more or less valuable…she’s simply enjoying the sand between her toes.

Review Your Learning

Biological Predisposition

  • Our reptilian brain still very actively compares, even though the context in which we make comparisons (modern life, society, social) has greatly changed. It is threatened by the judgments of others, and makes comparisons as if motivated by survival.
  • Even our more-evolved brain (prefrontal cortex) can exacerbate the issue by prioritizing social cohesion, and overvaluing status.
  • Social Comparison most often happens automatically (System 1 thinking), and can be combated with more creative thought.

Propellants

  • Media like TV, movies, and especially Social Media make comparison available and automatic.
  • Advertisements and trends establish social norms which heighten the importance of ‘fitting-in’ and thus comparison.
  • Ideologies like those conveyed by modern media often set unrealistic standards, creating a vicious comparison cycle.
  • We often make comparisons that bring others down, exalting our own status. Projection.

Solutions

  • Seek Connection. Understand that underneath comparisons is our need to connect.
  • Combat Comparison as a habit.
  • Comparing to something ‘bigger/better’ than what you are/have can be useful, as long as it isn’t far off. Attainable goals!
  • Practice Gratitude
  • Foster a Growth Mindset

Moving On

This small section on Social Comparison will also offer a page specifically on the Imposter Syndrome.
We also highly recommend you check out the How to and Resources page for this section, where you’re find tools, exercises, and a collection of links, videos and books to help you put things into action.