Monday, August 15, 2016

When Comparing Ourselves to Others Goes Wrong

How do you know when you're doing well?  Or poorly?
How do you measure how successful you are?  There are no real objective measures to this, it is a subjective evaluation only.  In the absence of objective measures, we tend to use comparisons to determine how we are doing.

It is almost essential to have something to compare our performance to if we are to understand the relative success of that performance.  When viewing the performance of an athlete, it is only by viewing their performance in comparison to others that we are able to determine their success. The Olympics model is predicated on this system of comparison as are all sports rankings.  A professional baseball player's number of home run hits per season has no context without comparing it to how many home runs others in the league are hitting.

At the personal level we compare ourselves to others constantly as a means of creating a personal sense of context. How fast we are, thin we are, smart we are, successful we are is all determined by viewing ourselves in comparison to how fast or slow others are, how thin or fat, rich or poor, smart or dumb, serious or funny.  Good or bad it serves as our way of understanding our place in the Social World.

Back in 1954 Leon Festinger established Social Comparison Theory to explain the tendency for people to be constantly making self evaluations.  We determine our own social and personal worth based on our perception of how we measure up against others.  There are two basic directions for such comparisons,
  • Downward
  • Upward
We are more likely to make downward comparisons when our Self Esteem is threatened.  When we aren't feeling good about ourselves we are likely to compare ourselves to someone less well off to make ourselves feel better. We do so as a means of  reassuring ourselves that things could be worse.

When we compare ourselves to someone we perceive as 'better off' we are making Upward Comparisons.  These comparisons can serve as inspiration, helping motivate us to achieve more. However, they can also fuel our envy or have a negative impact on our self esteem by creating unrealistic expectations and standards of success.  

Making these comparisons is a natural process that serves to provide us with useful information. However, if we dwell upon it too much it can become problematical.  
  • If our self esteem is low we may find that we become overly reliant on the misfortune of others to give us a boost.  We may then be constantly looking for the negative, downplaying the success of others which can have a very strong negative impact upon our relationships.
  • If we focus only on the perceived gap that exists between us and someone we see as being above us we may begin to feel the gap is insurmountable and give up rather than be motivated to persevere
All of these comparisons also rely on our view of self.  If our perception of our abilities is skewed then so too will our comparisons.  You see this on competition shows such as Idol every season, those people with clearly limited vocal talent who have no accurate understanding of their current level of skill. 

Given that we are making these comparisons continuously anyway, is there any way to use them positively?  The good news is that research suggests that yes, we certainly can, it is just a matter of perspective. Social comparisons typically focus on our differences, on highlighting the gaps, but it can also be used to identify our common humanity, which can then be used to establish a greater understanding and connectivity.

In its most simplest form our Social Comparisons serve a useful purpose in helping us to understand what we're good at and what we're not. 
  • Build a life and career around what you are good at relative to others and hire those who are good at what you are not.  
  • Use those who are better than you as a motivator to get better at something you want but use your own progress as a benchmark of improvement.  
You don't need to be the best in the world at everything you do, you just need to be better. Maybe the best comparator after all is whether you are better today than yesterday.  

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