The Perks and Pitfalls of Comparing Ourselves to Others: The Social Comparison Theory

People make all kinds of judgments about themselves, and one of the key ways we do this is through social comparison or analyzing the self in relation to others. Based on this habit of humans, the Social Comparison Theory was first proposed in 1954 by psychologist Leon Festinger.

This theory states that we humans, as social animals, always try to make a comparison between the right or wrong of the work we do.

The human brain or mind is constantly checking if every task or action we perform is right or wrong.

This will happen in different layers. So how does our brain differentiate right from wrong?

First it should be noted that what is actually ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is a part of an everyday debate since the dawn of the human race.

However, in this article, we will be discussing how an individual mind identifies what is right and wrong and not the ongoing debate.

At first, the mind tries to make an objective decision; this approach is a favourite of the human mind.

Let’s look at an example to understand this step:

If someone says you are overweight, then our mind always tries to check with a defined objective such as the BMI. Since this is an objective measure according to our understanding, our mind then identifies the current weight as ‘wrong’ or not up to the expectations of good health.  

However, the problem is that for most of the things that happen and decisions taken in our world, there is not no objective approach. As a result, the mind decides on good and bad by comparing oneself to the people around, or the society and culture.

This approach could positively or negatively impact our life. An interesting fact is that this comparison happens automatically. It is a hard coded system in our brain. We cannot say NO to this.

It is also noteworthy that this system is available most of the time to protect us. For instance, if a disaster happens, all the people will run in some direction without thinking twice. Many would run in the same direction, following others.

Let’s take another example. If a man keeps staring at the sky for some time, after a while, several others might join him to find out what he’s staring at. If this continues for quite some time, a crowd will gather there. This situation is a result of the comparative approach mentioned earlier.

In a similar way, we constantly compare ourselves with others in everything, our education level, social level, economic level etc.

Leon Festinger divides this comparison into two kinds of social comparisons—upward social comparison and downward social comparison.

Upward Comparison

This takes place when we compare ourselves with those whom we believe are better than us.

Advantages: Motivation/inspiration will happen

Disadvantages: An inferiority complex/ self-hesitation could be created within us 

Downward Comparison

This takes placewhen we compare ourselves to others whom we think are worse off than us.

Advantages: Self-positive thinking will happen

Disadvantages: An abnormal ego will emerge; we will not be encouraged for upward mobility or to achieve more

The important aspect we should make a note of within this comparison is that we, ourselves, make the decision to look upward or downward. It may be correct or wrong. If we are unable to balance this comparison, we will find it hard to progress in life smoothly. We would be either tirelessly attempting to achieve more with no satisfaction or we will be engrossed in a negative ego which will impede our success.

We should also keep in mind that this comparison happens automatically. This is the normal way our mind works but we need to be aware of not falling into the extreme level of either category when comparing ourselves with others. We must ensure that these forms of comparison affect us only positively. Thus, being aware of these two classifications, will assist us in controlling their effect on our lives.

All of the above being said, if you want to be a real champion, a real hero, if you want to progress in life exponentially, what you really need to do is compare yourself with yourself.

Indeed, we need to do a comparison, but it has to be done with ourselves. We need to compare our self with ourselves yesterday, last month, last year, today etc.

This approach will be most fruitful because each person’s path is different, each one’s starting point is different, the build culture is totally different, the DNA is different. Therefore, we need to compare ourselves with ourselves only.

This is the best approach to follow.

To summarize the key ideas in this article,

If we say, ‘do not compare yourself with others!’, it is not practical as it happens automatically. The only way to control this situation from going out of hand is awareness and controlling this impulse in a positive way. Specially, if we use social media, this comparison will happen most of the time. Thus, during social media use, it is very important to be conscious and have self-control.

Secondly, we must make an effort to compare ourselves with ourselves, rather than with others. Then we will be able to be conscious of our own progress.

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