To see the world in a brighter way than it really is, you just have to look at the neighbor’s lawn. Isn’t the grass always greener on the other side? This is now scientifically documented.

Each one of us is unique, and so any comparison is unfair. Typically, we compare the worst of our characteristics with the best of those of others. Theodore Roosevelt’s words on this subject are very wise: “Comparison is the thief of joy”.

However, we do tend to embellish the lives of others, in particular by giving them a more exciting social life than we have.

Also, we have an ingrained tendency to believe that others are more likely to succeed than we are, that they are happier; this is because of mental shortcuts that ruin our lives.

What is Social Comparison?

Initially proposed by social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954, social comparison is comparing yourself to others, for the purpose of self-assessment.

In the Theory of Social Comparison coined by Festinger, comparing oneself to others can take three forms:

  • Lateral comparison: comparing to people who are similar to oneself.

  • Top-down comparison: It refers to comparing to someone that can be worse than you in a specific area of life.

  • Bottom-up comparison: it means comparing oneself to someone better. For example, when saying that “I’m not as good as him/her” or “I’m less intelligent”.

It is this last type of social comparison that leads to a downward spiral of frustration and depression.

In fact, this is demonstrated by a series of studies by Sebastian Deri and Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University with Shai Davidai of the New School for Social Research. These studies attempt to analyze the cognitive mechanisms that lie behind social comparison.

We Are Complacent, Until We Indulge in Social Comparison.

The frustration behind social comparison is surprising as we generally show some complacency towards ourselves: more often than not, we are optimistic and believe we are more intelligent and capable than our peers, but not when it comes to social status.

For example, in a study by Antonia Hamilton of University College London, she asked people who transport packages to rate other people doing the same task. Most participants tend to think that others’ parcels are lighter than their own. And that their task was more difficult (even if it’s not).

The research that led to Deri and Gilovich’s article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology also shows that we are rather pessimistic when it comes to comparing our own social lives with those of our friends or people we know.

“This research was partly inspired by a question I was asking myself about my own life,” says Sebastian Deri, “In fact, I work in a rather small group of collaborators, so I started to wonder if I was the only one who found my social life less interesting than that of people I know… That’s how I started to ask questions around me.”

His curiosity led him to carry out eleven studies on various social groups: students (the classic guinea pigs of this type of research), but also customers of a shopping center, and users of Amazon Mechanical Turk, a marketplace for people to work on tasks.

A Very Common Phenomenon

The subjects of these studies were asked three questions:

  • What do you think about your social life?
  • What about the social life of the people you know?
  • So, what do you feel about those people’s lifestyles?

“The first study immediately highlighted the phenomenon: in general, people are convinced that others have a more fulfilling social life than their own, go out more often, and enjoy most of their time with friends and relatives,” explains Deri.

Further studies, carried out in part after the appearance of Deri’s article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, will then deliver similar results.

“This article is important because it validates data that several researchers have been working on for some time, and highlights some interesting elements that bring us back to social psychology,” says Michele Roccato, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Turin.

Social Comparision Theory

It is impossible not to mention Leon Festinger’s Theory of Social Comparison, according to which our opinion of ourselves depends on the comparisons we make between our own situation and that of others.

This theory was confirmed in the 1970s by an experiment conducted by psychologists Stan Morse and Kenneth Gergen.

The experiment involved two actors – let’s call them Mr. Clean and Mr. Dirty.

While the subject, a student, is working on a fictitious test, another student actor enters the room; he is either an elegant young man with a clean shave or, on the contrary, a negligent bearded person.

Results show that the self-esteem score of the first student varies according to the identity of the intruder, even if there is no interaction. If it is Mr. Dirty who enters the scene, the subject’s self-esteem increases, and if it is Mr. Clean…it decreases.

Cognitive Shortcuts: Enabling Fast Decision Making, But at a Cost.

We never know precisely our place in life, and to get a better idea of it, we can’t avoid comparing ourselves to others. So we use cognitive shortcuts that help us interpret reality.

Cognitive shortcuts are useful because they allow us to simplify our view of the world while we receive thousands of stimuli every second from our environment. But in some cases, they are also misleading.

These are the mechanisms that Daniel Kahneman -winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics- studied for explaining why our decisions are not based on rational principles.

Let’s take, for example, the availability heuristic. It’s a cognitive shortcut that pushes us to estimate the probability of an event based on the first examples that come to mind.

This is what happens when we compare our social life to other people’s, since the first individuals we compare ourselves to are the most popular and successful,because those are the first that come to mind. Our sampling is very off when we try to find our place in life by comparison. Consequently, we feel bad about ourselves.

The effects of our perception of others on us have also been studied from a sociological point of view.

Davide Bennato is a Professor of Sociology of Cultural Practices and Communication Processes at the University of Catania.

The problem, according to Bennato, is that we analyze reality by focusing on the aspects that interest us, and interpret them a little like a sociological Rorschach test: seeing in them what we want to see.

The Bias in Social Comparison

We are misled by easily accessible information

Some of the experiments designed by Deri and his colleagues are trying to solve the underlying causes of this phenomenon. He says:

“We tend to overestimate easily accessible information, and the most popular people are simply more noticeable, not only on social media but also in everyday reality.”

A college student who is preparing an exam in the library or his room is well aware that there is a party at the other end of the hall, while those who are having fun are not aware of his presence.

“In general, we don’t take into account a representative sample, we compare ourselves to the first people who come to mind, who are generally the most popular and noticeable, while when it comes to weighing our own abilities, we focus on ourselves,” continues Deri.

We idolize the people we admire

While the undeniable superiority of a Stephen Hawking or a 100-meter Olympic champion does not threaten our idea of our intellectual or sports gifts, the social successes of the people we know have an impact on us.

Especially since, as Ed O’Brien of the University of Chicago, points out:

“When we think about our most prominent idols, we do not imagine them in their daily activities, far from the eyes of others, and spending their day as ordinary people do.”

However, if subjects are asked to describe in detail the life of a person they admire, for example by establishing their schedule hour by hour on any given day, this fantasized vision tends to balance out, and the negative feelings of envy and inferiority they experience begin to decrease.

Social Comparison Fuels Envy

The primary emotion that is triggered when we compare ourselves to others is envy. This emotion is not quite like the others, which is suggested on a symbolic level by being one of the seven deadly sins in Roman Catholicism.

Envy is the only one of the seven sins that is not really accompanied by any pleasure.

Envy is not socially accepted in most cultures, and yet it is almost inevitable, given the omnipresence of social comparison.

However, the reaction to this emotion depends on our personality. We can indulge in destructive jealousy and the desire to harm others, or experience what can be defined as benign envy, which pushes us to improve and to fill the gap that hurts us.

But…

All this must be considered without ever losing sight of the importance of the social part in our life for our well-being.

“We know that a satisfying social life is a fundamental psychological requirement, which has an impact on our emotional stability and our happiness in general, while having a protective and beneficial effect on our health”, says Deri.

The consequences of the social comparison we have described do not necessarily affect lonely people, but people who perceive themselves as “less social” than their surroundings.

And even if scientific studies show a correlation between the perception of our social life and our general life satisfaction. There is still a lack of in-depth studies on the effects of this perception.

The Role of Social Media in Social Comparison

The difficulty of refraining from social comparison is exacerbated by the spread of social media. It overwhelmingly increases the possibility of social comparison, which was previously more limited in space and time.

Receiving a postcard or listening to a colleague describe their trip to Morocco does not have the same effect as the constant flow of seductive images fed by our screens.

This is one of the themes that Deri and his team are investigating, based on the hypothesis that social networking could stimulate our sense of inadequacy, but without forgetting that this phenomenon existed before the release of Facebook and Instagram.

FOMO

The internet and social networks are at the root of a new disorder, referred to as FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). It is the fear of missing the opportunity, of missing out on all that the internet presents us with: funny, interesting, beautiful, and inviting mass streams of data.

The phenomenon is particularly evident among young people, and is linked to anxiety and low levels of satisfaction with one’s own lifestyle.

This behavior would feed itself, as those most likely to experience FOMO while checking on other people’s lives on the internet would often spend more time following the lives of others, which would feed their pessimism and dissatisfaction.

Overwhelming Stream of information

In reality, the perceptual alteration of the way people live around us has always existed. However, the current problem is that we now have a large amount of information on millions of individuals, and we are overwhelmed by it.

Also, this information no longer comes to us through a narrative, but through images, which increases their emotional impact severalfold.

The Paradox of Friendship

The very mechanism of social networks also produces strange situations such as the paradox of friendship: Among our online friends, we probably have some very popular ones who have many followers. Ironically, having very popular friends leads us to realize that we have fewer friends than they do, and then perceiving ourselves as lonely.

With social media, we run the risk of being carried away by irrational mechanisms. This is true even if we know that what we see is the picture of a particular moment, a highlight reel, not the reality of a person in the different facets of his life.

We know this because we ourselves use social networks as a theatre, where we choose to stage the part of our identity that we want to show, which is sometimes very far from what we experience daily in our personal life.

Now You Know, But what should You Do?

Despite everything we described, we tend to overemphasize what is happening before our eyes and let ourselves be caught in this lark mirror, especially if we feel dissatisfied and unhappy. We fall in a vicious circle that increases our frustration.

In this way, we cognitively build a world that can threaten our well-being. We should instead try to rescale what we see, to realize that it is only a part of reality and to avoid being trapped.

It can then be useful to keep in mind other areas where comparison is more beneficial to us. And especially learning to appreciate and value our social life even if it seems less rewarding.

Why not take a moment to look away from other people’ windows and bring your attention back to what you have?

Author

Jim Miller

Jim spent his twenties trying tounderstand how our primitive minds get in the way of self-growth. He has a lot of interesting ideas about human psychology that he doesn't hesitate to share when opportunity presents itself.

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Author

Jim Miller

Jim spent his twenties trying tounderstand how our primitive minds get in the way of self-growth. He has a lot of interesting ideas about human psychology that he doesn't hesitate to share when opportunity presents itself.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Be the first to receive the latest articles and exclusive offers on our products directly in your inbox

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