Checking each other out and comparing yourself to others is human nature. We do it all the time in terms of our abilities, intelligence, attractiveness and success. We check how successful classmates, from as far back as high school, have been, as well as how past romantic partners are doing. And there’s no shortage of opportunities to compare ourselves to others. Some activities, such as competition, are explicit opportunities to compare ourselves to others. People sign up for activities, like sports and contests, with the goal of competing — finding out who is best and who is not. Other activities, like seeing old friends, following friends on Instagram or Facebook, and even going to parties, don’t start out as competitions but can leave you feeling better or worse than others.
What is the social comparison trap?
The social comparison trap happens when we get stuck comparing ourselves to others in a manner that leaves us feeling bad about ourselves and gets in our way of doing things. Research psychologists believe that one of the main purposes of social comparison is to help us evaluate ourselves in comparison to others. They believe that comparing ourselves to others is a fundamental need and an important aspect of all social encounters. It helps us evaluate and confirm our social worth to other members of both large and small groups, including friendships and romantic relationships. When we are uncertain about our value to others, social comparison becomes more frequent. It becomes one of the mechanisms by which we determine our value to others.
The social comparison trap happens when our comparisons become unfavourable (i.e., we end up looking worse) and increase our uncertainty about our worth, which in turn increases the need to compare ourselves to others. Uncertainty about our worth will increase the frequency of social comparison. But if those comparisons leave us feeling worthless, then our value to others will be threatened, and the need to compare ourselves to others will increase. It is a vicious cycle that can undermine your well-being and increase your fear and anxiety around others.
We now live in a world in which we are constantly confronted with information about the skills, abilities, strengths and weaknesses of others, against which we will evaluate ourselves.
How frequently do people compare themselves to others?
Quantifying the exact number of comparisons that people make in a day is difficult, especially since it depends on what type of person you are. Some people are more prone to social comparison than others. Still, estimates suggest that as much as 10% of our interactions with others will involve some kind of social comparison — more is you are self-conscious or experiencing high levels of depressed mood.
One of the largest studies ever conducted on the frequency and impact of social comparison, involving more than 38,000 people on Facebook, showed that 60% of people made some kind of comparison in the past two weeks. These comparisons included comparing your accomplishments, deciding how to present yourself or deciding what to do. Results showed that the frequency of comparison declined with age and was highest among young adults and adolescents. 29% of people reported feeling “quite a bit” or “a great deal” worse after seeing a post. 34% that the negative feeling lasted less than a half hour, and 37% for a day or more.
What’s the impact of social comparison on self-worth?
Some sixty years of research, often involving pain staking tracking of social comparisons, as they occur, has shown that we generally tend to make unfavourable comparisons to people who have more, have accomplished more, or are more attractive than we are and that this has a negative impact on our moods, self-worth and behaviour.
What’s the impact of social comparison on academic success?
A small number of studies have shown that a small amount of social comparison may actually boost motivation and performance in students. In these studies, university students who were shown their current a predicted performance compared to students with similar goals obtained better grades by the end of the course than students not provided with this information. A little bit of social comparison may not be a bad thing.
Did you know?
Brain imaging studies have now identified distinct regions associated with two types of comparisons, namely downward comparison (comparing to worse-off others), located in the ventral striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and upward comparison (comparing to better-off others), located in the anterior insula and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex.
Similar brain studies showed that when people were led to believe that they lost money on a game of chance, they expressed joy and gloating when they believed someone else had lost more money but expressed envy when they believed that someone else had won more money — even when they had won money themselves.
Although social comparison is in our nature, how we deal with it is up to us.
Social comparison questionnaires:
Psychologists have been studying social comparison and its impact since the 1950s. These psychologists have been interested in how frequently people compare themselves to others, whether the comparisons people make tend to be favourable (i.e., you end up looking better than others) or unfavourable (i.e., you end up looking worse), in what area people compare themselves (e.g., appearance, money, possession, where they live, who they know, etc. etc. etc.) and the impact of social comparison on others.
As it turns out, there are important individual differences. Some people are more prone to comparing themselves to other people, which can, in some instances, contribute to lower self-esteem, more stress and worry. The social comparison and impact questionnaires will help you figure out how prone you are to social comparison and how it impacts you.
Tips on how to deal with social comparison
1. Be careful who you compare yourself to
One of the most important things to keep in mind is that you can usually, if not always, find someone who is better than you are at something, especially when you are still at school, starting a new job, sport or activity. Comparing yourself to people who are better than you means that you will always come off looking less smart, less successful, and less hardworking. You will always have less, be last, be worse. There is little purpose and little benefit in this type of comparison for very long. A little bit of this will remind you how far you have (yet) to go and may motivate you (a bit). However, goal-setting skills will be far more effective in getting you to where you want to be.
2. Limit your social comparison behaviour
Set a limit on your social comparison behaviour, especially when it leaves you feeling worse off than others. When you find yourself checking out other people’s social media posts, profiles and accomplishments more than once or twice a week, for more than a few minutes, it is probably time to dial it down.
3. When to avoid it completely
There are some critical times to avoid comparing yourself to others completely, including just before you do something that is important to you, such as just before writing an exam, submitting a paper, or competing, as well as just after any of that.
4. Be fair to yourself
The most important skill in dealing with social comparison is to be fair to yourself; that means (a) recognizing that you may have different abilities, qualities, challenges and time constraints that will influence how well you can do in any situation and (b) that you have many other qualities, abilities and strengths that are important to who you are. The biggest harm that can come from social comparison is that it compares you to others in a very narrow way and does not consider all of your strengths and abilities.
5. Motivate yourself by goal-setting, not comparing.
One of the most effective strategies for getting where you want to be and what you would like to have is to define a clear goal and develop a plan to get there. Goal setting can be effective for everything from studying for an individual test to a specific course or even a life plan. Read more about goal-setting skills.
6. What’s your recipe for well-being and happiness?
The single best way to deal with the negative elements of social comparison is to develop a comprehensive view of happiness and well-being that includes everything that you are good at and consider important.
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