Making comparisons is perfectly normal, and some studies show that up to 10% of thoughts involve comparisons of some kind. Comparing one thing to another can be an efficient way to make decisions and find the relationship between objects, however, when comparison meets insecurity it can lead to a dangerous mindset.
Social Comparison Theory
Social Comparison Theory was originally described by Leon Festinger in 1954, and proposes that people evaluate their own abilities and attitudes in relation to those of the people around them (also known as their reference group), a process that plays a significant role in self-image and wellbeing. Festinger categorised social comparison into 3 distinct groups:
- Upward social comparison: comparing yourself to someone that you judge to be better than you, for example someone richer, more beautiful or in higher social standing
- Downward social comparison: comparing yourself to someone you judge to be worse off or not as good as you
- Lateral social comparison: comparing yourself to someone that you consider to be equal.
Initially, it was purported that upward comparisons were linked to feelings of inferiority, and were associated with negative changes in self-concept. However, research suggests that, in some cases, upward comparison may instead be inspirational and can even lead to positive changes in the habits and actions of individuals.
On the other hand, thinking about others who have it worse than yourself can bring a temporary sense of relief, but researchers found that downward social comparisons can fuel depression, lead to overwhelm and decrease performance in the long term.
The Social Media Factor
It’s hardly news that the rise of social media has brought an increase of social comparison. Where just 20 years ago we were limited to comparisons between ourselves and our friends and acquaintances, nowadays we are constantly bombarded with the curated lives of our peers from all around the world.
Consumerism has preyed on our natural tendency to compare. While social media lets us hide our flaws and show our best selves, brands are tugging at our insecurities and constantly using social proof to promote the next best thing.
When we start to compare properties within ourselves that we believe define our worth as humans, we can start to develop a negative mindset and habits. If you believe that your worth as a human is innately tied to how intelligent you are, you will instantly feel less valuable the moment you meet someone smarter than yourself (or a better parent, or a faster runner, or whatever it is that matters to you).
So how can we use our natural instinct to compare to our benefit?
Flipping the Mindset
If you find yourself having negative thoughts or feelings when comparing yourself to others, there are a few quick tricks that can help you flip the narrative:
- Ask yourself, “Am I jealous? Why am I jealous? And what am I not jealous of?” This forces you to compare yourself to the other person in a different light, and may help to reduce negative feelings. For example, perhaps I’m jealous of my neighbours beautiful house and well-behaved kids, but I’m definitely not jealous of her working 60 hour weeks and not having family nearby to help.
- Transform your thinking to a “prefer” statement. Instead of looking at someone and comparing their beach house to your tent, think “I would prefer to have a beach house.” Who wouldn’t? This transforms what first felt like a need to a mere preference, and you can start to see the situation more objectively. You may even use this technique to set a compass for yourself and create new goals, for example setting up a savings plan to one day buy that beach house.
- Be grateful for what you have. Without sounding flippant, it can be beneficial to take a step back and look at how much you already have without comparing it to what others do or don’t have.
We encourage you to try out these mind tricks and let us know what worked for you. Do you have any other tips to minimise the negative effects of social comparison? Share them below!