We’re constantly told not to compare ourselves with others. Conventional wisdom has told us time and again that comparing is bad for our self-esteem, our relationships, a waste of time… the list goes on.
Challenge! Comparing ourselves is a natural process that we all engage in, and it can make us feel better and motivate us when done right.
Comparing things is how we learn, distinguish patterns, make decisions, and evolve. While formal theories of social comparisons have been around in psychology literature since the 1950’s, some of my recent research experiences with colleagues who study social comparisons have compelled me to share the potential benefits.
If we engage in comparing ourselves with someone else, we’re usually “looking up” in comparing with someone we believe to be doing better than us, or “looking down” in comparing with someone we perceive as doing worse than us (at least in one regard). Perhaps you’ve gotten a poor grade on a paper or exam. Research has shown that we’re more likely to look down if our goal for comparing is to feel better, and to look up if we want to be motivated. While research has shown people to engage in certain types of social comparisons depending on the situation, there are two pitfalls to overcome in challenging conventional wisdom:
- Its OK, even necessary, to make ourselves feel better but it’s up to us to switch gears and make sure we start making comparisons that motivate us after we do feel better.
- An important component of the comparison process is focusing on things that we can control.
Focusing on things we can control, especially when looking up, is what helps keep us motivated. This is because when we’re looking up, we’re ideally looking for similarities between ourselves and someone who’s achieving our goals, whereas looking down, we’re ideally looking for differences between ourselves and someone we see as worse off. Paying attention to similarities vs. differences when comparing, as well as similarities we can control (e.g., work ethic vs. height), is how we can use social comparisons to motivate ourselves to achieve our goals.
How do we make social comparisons work for us?
Being conscious of:
- Why we’re comparing:
- Do we want to feel better or motivated?
- Who we’re comparing with:
- Are we looking up or down?
- How we’re comparing:
- Similarities or differences?
- Things we can control or not?
- Realistic comparisons?
Check out this brief article I wrote with Mike Ross on LinkedIn for a more detailed explanation with empirical references if you’re interested!