🤼 Don't Compare Yourself to Others
The science of upward social comparison bias
One of the most self-defeating things we do is compare ourselves to other people. Are we making as much money? Do we have as many friends? Is our lifestyle as glamorous?
The answer to those questions rarely makes us happy because we’re biased toward being too hard on ourselves. We choose to compare ourselves exclusively with people who are one step ahead, and we usually focus on the dimensions that make us feel insecure. In other words, we rig the game so that we always lose.
🧗 Our obsession with upward comparison
In some ways, social comparison is useful because it supports healthy societal norms. Healthy norms guide good behavior: They push us to bathe regularly, use words like “thank you”, and generally avoid insulting people. We’re all born with a productive urge to fit in, and we fit in by comparing our behavior to other people’s behavior.
But there’s one major problem with the way we judge ourselves relative to others. As we make progress with our goals, we constantly shift the goalposts, forgetting about how far we’ve already come and believing we can only be happy when we catch up with the next person.
A 2018 meta-analysis of all available evidence on social comparison revealed a clear problem: When people compare themselves to others, they consistently choose to compare upward rather than downward. They cherry-pick people with more money, more fame, better health, greater attractiveness, etc, and then naturally feel deflated by the outcome of that comparison.
When climbing a tall ladder, “don’t look down” might be good advice. But when your sense of self-worth, confidence, and motivation are on the line, never looking down on the ladder of life is a real problem. You lose perspective, forget past achievements, and create impossible standards for yourself. Worst of all, you risk feeling envious and unfulfilled by judging yourself based on arbitrary social standards that have no real bearing on the quality of your life.
Upward comparison weakens self-worth. And yet, even with this clear emotional threat, we can’t help but gravitate towards it.
🧑💻 Social networks: Upward comparison on steroids
With the constant photos and updates on social media, it’s easier than ever to compare yourself to others. In 2019, Yitshak Alfasi—a researcher in Israel—investigated the causal connection between the way people use Facebook and the way they feel.
Alfasi randomly split a sample of 80 people into two groups. He told one group to look at their Facebook news feed for 15 minutes and the other group to look at the National Geographic Facebook page for 15 minutes. Everyone used Facebook, but only the group looking at the news feed was exposed to social comparison information.
After just 15 minutes of usage, people scrolling the news feed reported lower self-esteem and higher depression than people scrolling the National Geographic page. Social comparison was the catalyst that transformed social media usage into emotional hardship.
The news feed only increased depression for people who frequently compared themselves to others in their everyday lives (i.e. those people with a high “social comparison orientation”). You can see this pattern in the graph I recreated below from the original paper.
We all know that people present idealized views of themselves on social media, but that doesn’t stop us comparing ourselves to those idealized views. In fact, it probably makes us more likely to start comparing because of the upward comparison bias that I described in the last section.
Social networks are great if you use them wisely and strengthen your resilience against social comparison. The message here isn’t “don’t use Facebook”, it’s merely “don’t use Facebook to compare yourself to others”.
⭐️ Takeaway tips
Social status doesn’t matter in the end: Anxieties around social status and rivalry provoke unhappiness, and yet we all end up in exactly the same place (i.e. dead). There will always be someone better off than you and someone worse off than you, so why join a meaningless rat race that nobody ever wins?
If you’re interested in topics related to the psychology of social status, I recommend a great book by Alain de Botton titled “Status Anxiety”.
Lower your “social comparison orientation”: Some people engage in less social comparison than others, and that buffers them against the problems of social media. By learning to focus on the things we have rather than things that others have, we can orient our minds toward gratitude instead of never-ending craving.
Look all around you, not just up: If you do compare yourself to others, choose a fair and representative sample to compare against rather than cherry-picking a heavily idealized sample. Similarly, practice focusing on how far you’ve come in life rather than how far you haven’t been able to go.
💡 A final quote
When we feel deficient in some way, we frequently worry about how others may be judging us. But our assumptions of how others judge us are mostly wrong. One of my previous newsletters went into this in detail: Evidence shows that we consistently underestimate how much other people like us.
Tyler Knott Gregson’s haiku captures this sense of social uncertainty, anxiety, and miscommunication perfectly:
“Belief of belief,
we are shaped by what we think
they may think of us.”
~ Haiku on Life by Tyler Knott Gregson
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Until next time,
Erman Misirlisoy, PhD
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This is amazing, and I'm honored to be a part of this. Thanks!