The Serve and Limit of Social Comparison
Comparing ourselves to others is a common human phenomenon and well-established topic in psychological literature. How can therapists assist clients use this to benefit their mental health and self-growth?
Maggie, a counsellor, saw a client in the morning who related how his doctor had just given him a diagnosis of cancer, necessitating cutting out some cancerous tissue. Her client, Arnold, was dismayed about the diagnosis. “But at least,” he confided to Maggie, “I don’t have to have that horrible colostomy bag like some people do.”
Later in the day, Maggie saw her client Joy, whom she was treating for depression. “It’s just awful!” exclaimed Joy. “I look on Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram, and everyone’s doing so much more interesting things than I am. They’re taking fabulous holidays, their kids are getting amazing awards at school, and everyone seems so happy and vibrant. I see that my life is just pathetic!”
Although it didn’t dawn on Maggie until later in the day when she was writing up her notes, both her clients had exhibited the same phenomenon of social comparison. It is a well-established topic in psychological literature, and many are the debates about whether it is helpful to engage or not. The purpose of this post is to clarify some of the issues around it, examining how it may serve and limit us. We briefly discuss strategies the therapist can engage to help a client caught in the clutches of this pervasive social phenomenon.
What is social comparison theory?
We can define social comparison theory as the notion that “we determine our own social and personal worth based on how we stack up against others. As a result, we are constantly making self and other evaluations across a variety of domains” (for example, attractiveness, wealth, intelligence, or success) (Better Help, n.d.).
Downward and upward
We can compare ourselves to less fortunate others, as Maggie’s client Arnold did, in an act of downward social comparison, or we can compare ourselves with others who are seemingly better, more fortunate, more intelligent (or whatever) than we are, as client Joy did. The latter constitutes upward social comparison (Curwen, 2016). Few among us have never engaged in such comparisons, but why do we do it? What goals is the comparer hoping to achieve through the comparison?
How social comparison might serve us . . .
Evaluating ourselves against our social environment has been called an “unavoidable human trait”: unavoidable, perhaps, because through it we meet the need of gaining information about our current situation (Curwen, 2016). It is self-evaluation when we use social comparison to gain a better sense of ourselves and where we are in our lives. In this case we tend to compare ourselves to someone who is similar in at least one major aspect, such as age, sex, occupation, or appearance. By choosing a similar other for comparison, we can increase the accuracy of the self-evaluation (Better Help, n.d.).
Psychological self-enhancement is often cited as another goal of social comparison. In this, we are going for a self-confidence boost. The problem is that it is quite often a poor assessment, as we inaccurately analyse others, and our comparison to them, in order to make ourselves feel better. Unlike when our goal is self-evaluation, in self-enhancement, we don’t necessarily seek out similar others for comparison. Moreover, if we believe that the compared other outshines us on the dimension of comparison, the tendency is to dismiss the assessment entirely rather than admit that the other person is superior (Better Help, n.d.). Nevertheless, the “serve” of downward social comparison can be a boost in self-esteem, albeit a temporary one (we return to this point in a moment).
More frequent use of downward than upward social comparison with similar others has also commonly been used as a coping strategy for preserving self-esteem when confronting wide-ranging life situations which challenge us, including experiences of physical decline, rheumatoid arthritis, AIDS, occupational burnout, eating disorders, unemployment, and intellectual disabilities (Open Textbook, 2016).
Finally, upward social comparison can be harnessed for good because it provides information that can help us do better, by helping us to imagine ourselves as part of the group of successful people that we want to be like; it can give us hope. Moreover, when we realise that others are already engaging in particular prosocial behaviours, an upward social comparison is triggered, and we often follow suit. This has been shown in such diverse contexts as energy-saving practices with factory workers and hotel guests (Open Textbook, 2016).
. . . and limit us
Logically, if we are made to feel better by comparing ourselves to less fortunate others, we may tend to feel more depressed when we make upward social comparisons. Indeed, a study by Feinstein and colleagues (2013, in Open Textbooks, 2016) found just that. The researchers hypothesised that a tendency to make upward social comparisons on Facebook would predict increased symptoms of depression over a three-week period. Results showed that making more upward comparisons predicted increased rumination, which in turn was linked to increased depressive symptoms.
Beyond that, social comparisons can have a significant effect on our feelings, on our attempts to improve, and even on whether we are willing to continue performing an activity. Positive comparisons give us the sense that we are meeting goals and living up to expectations set by both ourselves and other parties; so we feel good about ourselves, enjoy the activity, and tend to work harder at it. But when we have a sense that we compare negatively with others, we experience the limit side of comparison in that we are more likely to feel poorly about ourselves, enjoy the activity less, and we may even stop performing the activity altogether (Open Textbook, 2016).
Downward social comparison has been found to have a relationship with the negative emotional states of burnout and emotional exhaustion. This occurs because of the short-term nature of the boost we get (Curwen, 2016): a short-term ego-boost followed by a longer-term sense of burnout.
It’s not simple
The discussion so far would have us believe that, if we want to feel better (temporarily at least) we should compare ourselves to those worse off, and if we want to do better (and our ego can take it), we should compare ourselves to those who are superior in some way. The truth is more complex. Rather than the act of making a social comparison being the independent variable which affects the dependent variable of how we feel about ourselves, research now tells us that it is the other way around. That is, unhappy people – not happy ones – make the most spontaneous frequent social comparisons (Lyubomirsky & Ross, 1997). In one study, both happy and sad people had the opportunity to compare themselves to a better or worse peer.
Social comparisons to reduce uncertainty
True to the oversimplified sense, unhappy people felt worse when paired with a better “performer” (a confederate of the researchers) and better when paired with a worse performer. Happy people, meanwhile, had less emotional vulnerability to the available social comparison information; they simply did not pay as much attention to how well others were doing. Other researchers had similar findings: Giordano, Wood and Michela (2000) found that unhappy people make more frequent social comparisons, and Swallow & Kuiper (1992) found that mildly depressed people make more frequent social comparisons. The tendency to seek social comparison information is correlated with low self-esteem, depression, and neuroticism (Gibbons & Buunk, 1999).
These studies imply that people make social comparisons when they need both to reduce uncertainty about their abilities and other socially defined attributes, and when they need to rely on an external standard against which to judge themselves. Thus, those who are uncertain of their self-worth, who do not have clear, internal standards, will engage in more frequent social comparisons. Unfortunately, research has shown that this very drive to evaluate ourselves is what is problematic, in that it tends to set up a cycle of objective self-awareness, which leads to more frequent comparisons. If we add in the effects of self-focused attention and negative affect, this very drive can send us swiftly down the road to chronic unhappiness.
How to help the socially comparing client
While the comparisons can reduce uncertainty and positively impact wellbeing, this result is short-lived, as we mentioned. The larger consequence of making social comparisons is that they act as reinforcement, leading the individual to make more frequent comparisons, which leads to the person being dependent on them, and on meeting external standards to renew a sense of wellbeing: a sad cycle which ties social comparisons to ever-diminishing wellbeing (White, Langer, Yariv, and Welch, 2006).
So what do we do to help clients escape the unhappiness-engendering cycle of social comparison and decreasing wellbeing? Let’s get a perspective on how it arises. First, the negative feelings from unfavourably comparing ourselves need to be acknowledged as arising from a deficit framework: a sense of scarcity that says that if someone else has more, then I will have less, because there is never enough to go around: not enough talent, enough awards, enough money, enough good looks, etc.
Second, we need to be clear with clients that they aren’t comparing apples with apples most of the time. That is, the tendency is to be comparing someone else’s life as seen from the outside with their own lives as known from the inside. As most of us who delve into social media have experienced, the stunning photos and happy declarations that appear on someone’s page are carefully curated; they do not generally reflect the person’s total reality, as people tend to want to project the best image possible of themselves and camouflage those aspects that are less happy or “successful”. When we know people more closely, we also know their challenges, frustrations, and dark secrets – despite how beautiful and perfect their lives look when viewed externally. Here are some strategies to assist the socially comparing client.
Remind the client: it isn’t real
If the angst follows on from involvement with social media, the client can be encouraged to remember the above caveat: not to compare the visible, exterior life of another with the intimate knowing of their own life. If following that proves too difficult, you may suggest to the client that taking a break from social media would help them plug back into the genuine interactions of their life (Scott, 2016). Along these lines, it may be worth exploring how many supports the person has in their network: that is, real people who can be counted on for emotional or other support when it is needed. Greater social media involvement is often associated with fewer and less sustaining friendships. These strategies fit well with a CBT approach, or any approach that encourages clients to reframe. Another point here is that, even objectively comparing two individuals’ sets of achievements is not helpful; there will always be someone better at a given activity/sport/endeavour.
Use awareness and mindfulness to notice the thoughts – and what’s missing
Some people are not aware when they are comparing. If your client falls into this category, help them bring consciousness to such thoughts. Clients can be invited to sit with the comparisons for a moment, engaging them if they are helpful, and letting them quietly waft away if they are not. Clients can thank their mind for the contribution and decide if, perhaps, their tendency to compare in some way is signalling an unmet need along some dimension (Moore, 2014). If so, the client can bring fresh awareness of the need back to session, where you can process how they can gain more of the attribute. A woman feeling like other women are more glamourous or good-looking, for example, could need to give herself more “me” time/resource for pampering/self-appreciation.
Practice gratitude and a focus on strengths
If social comparison arises from a sense of lack, then gratitude – focusing on that which we have and counting our blessings and strengths – is the antidote. Positive psychology has many exercises to help people do both, as do other modalities. Sometimes, even just writing down, say, three things we are grateful for in a day, and/or three strengths which we were able to use in a given day, is a powerful reminder to be present with our own lives, which are enriched with a focus on the positive (Zen Habits, n.d.).
Don’t engage the Tall Poppy Syndrome
Does the client have a tendency to make herself feel better by criticising others? Again, this habit, springing from perceived lack, boomerangs to hurt the criticiser. Remind clients that supporting others in their success attracts more success to us. Beyond that, no one is perfect; the more we can learn to live with imperfection – in ourselves and others – the more we can recognise the perfection of the imperfection: it makes us who we uniquely are (Zen Habits, n.d.).
Ultimately, life is a journey, not a destination, and if we wish to enjoy the trip, we are probably better off to forgo the relief gained from a downward social comparison that briefly allows us think we are superior. It is better, as we have seen from the included research, to humbly focus on our own lives with gratefulness and an acknowledgement that life on Planet Earth isn’t about always having more, or having perfection. What we have (in the western developed world, anyway) is generally enough. What we are is enough. Remind your clients of Roosevelt’s wise saying that “Comparison is the thief of joy” (Battles, 2018).
Battles, R. (2018). Comparison is the thief of joy. Ryanbattles.com. Retrieved on 30 July, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
Better Help. (n.d.). Social comparison theory means we determine our worth based on others. Betterhelp.com. Retrieved on 24 July, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
Curwen, J. (2016). Social comparison: An unavoidable upward or downward spiral. Positive Psychology Program. Retrieved on 24 July, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
Gibbons, F.X., & Buunk, B.P. (1999). Individual differences in social comparison: Development of a scale of social comparison orientation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 129-142.
Giordano, C., Wood, J.V., & Michela, J.L. (2000). Depressive personality styles, dysphoria, and social comparisons in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 438-451.
Lyubomirsky, S., & Ross, L. (1997). Hedonic consequences of social comparison: A contrast of happy and unhappy people. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 1141-1157.
Moore, S. (2014). How to overcome social comparison. Huffington Post. Retrieved on 24, July, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
Open Textbooks for Hong Kong. (2016). Upward and downward comparisons influence our self-esteem. Opentextbooks.org. Retrieved on 24 July, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
Scott, E. (2016). Give yourself a break from stressful social comparisons! Very Well Mind. Retrieved on 24 July, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
Swallow, S.R., & Kuiper, N.A. (1992). Mild depression and frequency of social comparison behavior. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 11, 167-180.
White, J.B., Langer, E.J., Leeat, Yariv, & Welch, J.C. (2006). Frequent social comparisons and destructive emotions and behaviors: The dark side of social comparisons. Journal of Adult Development, 33(1), 36-44.
Zen Habits. (n.d.). Life’s enough: Stop comparing yourself to others. Zen Habits. Retrieved on 24 July, 2018, from: Hyperlink.