The short answer is yes*. There are two main reasons for this. First, we are social animals and it is normal to compare ourselves to others, which occurs both consciously and unconsciously (Mlodinow 2012; Garcia & Halldorsson 2016). Second, it is often helpful to compare ourselves to others (Garcia & Halldorsson 2016; Laham 2012). However, there are some important *rules to the game.
Before diving into the details, I will quickly review what triggered me to write this. A friend of mine made a post on Facebook recently, which included the following;
“Too often we compare ourselves to others, our transformation, macros, abs, glutes, job, cars, kids, house, clothes, relationships, etc. The truth is COMPARISON makes a person feel inferior or superior and neither serve a purpose. Be motivated without comparing.”
It caught my attention and I ruminated about it for a few days, likely due to the fact I was on the fence about how I felt about it. This is not the first time I have heard someone say something like this. Most of us have heard the phrases, “Keeping up with the Joneses” or “Is the grass really greener” and others quips about comparing what we have, or do, to others. As stated in the above quote, along with the two examples, comparisons are often cast as a bad thing. However, is this a good representation of what comparisons do?
First, social comparison is not a simple subject. Furthermore, social comparisons can have both positive and negative effects. Therefore, saying it is bad or good to compare ourselves to others is overly simplistic and both absolute positions are wrong.
It is important to highlight, again, that we will compare ourselves to others. This seems to be a normal result of how our brains work and will happen both consciously and unconsciously (Corcoran et al 2011). Therefore, the better question is not if we should, but HOW can we do it in a way that will likely have positive effects.
This subject relates to many concepts, such as envy, jealousy, self-esteem, self-identity as well as social norms, mentors and role models. Many of these aspects overlap. I will review a few that seem to be particularly important.
Envy, is a common aspect that arises from comparisons. A common definition of envy is “when a person lacks another’s superior quality, achievement, or possession, and either desires it or wishes that the other lacks it.” (Laham 2012, p.139). Envy is frequently considered bad. However, there are two types of envy, benign and malicious, which have important and important differences on how we feel and what we do (Laham 2012). It is the benign form of envy, the type that manifests as a feeling of wanting what other person has as well as glad this person has it. This type of envy often leads to lead to increased motivation and action to attain goals (Laham 2012; van de Ven et al 2011). Conversely, malicious envy is wanting what someone else has but also wishing they did not have it or they do not deserve it. This latter form often leads to negative effects and should be avoided, as it is unlikely to improve your situation.
Envy is really about upward comparisons. These upward comparisons can have positive effects on many health related behaviors, such as eating and exercise, as well as outcomes such as weight and diabetes (Rancourt et al 2015; Schokker et al 2010; Shakya et al 2015). There are also downward comparisons, which is when we compare what we have to those that seem to have less. This is often done when we feel our self-identity (self-worth, self-esteem) is being threatened. Additionally, this is common when dealing with an illness, which we will compare our situation to someone else who seems to be worse off. In these situations, downward comparison can have a positive effect.
When it comes to comparisons, when we are trying to improve ourselves (i.e., eat healthier, exercise more, have better social relationships, etc), an upward comparison is the type that is likely beneficial. There are two key aspects to this, similarity and self-efficacy. Similarity has to do with physical characteristics such as gender, age, and ethnicity as well as the similarity of the target behavior or outcome. This latter aspect seems self-evident, (i.e., I want to be a great tennis player so I compare myself to tennis players, not a baseball player), but there is a wrinkle to this aspect. There has to be a feeling that the level of performance is achievable (i.e, comparing to another amateur who is better or a professional player). This feeling of having the ability (physical, mental, as well as access) is referred to as self-efficacy. How the comparison will affect you will largely depend on the level of self-efficacy. High self-efficacy means the comparison is likely to have positive effects. If the comparison seems unattainable, then look for a new comparison. Additionally, self-efficacy can be increased by having a good mentor/role model as well as setting and achieving small goals relating to the desired outcome. Each goal met bumps up our feeling of self-efficacy (i.e, I can do this).
Before moving onto other aspects of comparisons, there is one more major caveat about upward comparisons, which has to do with having the facts, or real picture (literally or figuratively) of who or what we are comparing. You should ask yourself; is what I see or know about a person a true representation of what they look like or what they do? For example, do the images in a magazine, on Facebook, Instagram, and so forth, give a realistic depiction of what a person typically looks like? How much editing has been done to the picture? This is certainly not a new concern, however, social media has definitely increased the frequency and breath of this happening. In fact, there is now a term that is now being used related to this, which is “false Facebook-self” (Gil-or et al 2015). This relates to images as well as what people have or do. Basically, “false Facebook-self” is about the degree (ranges from subtle to almost complete fabrication) to which a persons “Facebook-self” is different from their real-self. This is not only a social media problem, nor a new problem, as people can present a “false-self”, with respect to virtually anything, in daily face-to-face encounters as well. Most humans have an innate drive to present their best-self and only share the good stuff (real or not-so-real) and not the difficult or bad stuff. In fact, having an optimistic bias (focusing on the good stuff and that things will get better), is generally a good thing for physical and mental health (Carver et al 2010). However, it can go too far. Again, this ‘best-self’ or ‘false-self’ is not new, but social media tends to increase this. With that said, the use of social media sites, such as Facebook, can have many positive effects, but it can easily have negative effects, particularly for people who struggle with low-self-esteem and low-self-efficacy (Gil-Or et al 2015; Pera 2018).
Besides the images, there is also a need to be mindful of what people actually do to get what you think you want. Is the person being honest about what they do to achieve something? Are there ethical shortcuts taken? In the case of physical aesthetics, are they using performance enhancing drugs (i.e., steroids, diuretics, insulin, etc). Are they upfront about the number of hours they put into getting what they have? Has achieving one great outcome meant the sacrifice of other often important aspects of life (referred to as opportunity costs)? This is not inherently bad, but it is good to be aware of the “costs”. To be good at something, it almost always means there is a lot of time and effort needed to achieve this as it is typically NOT because someone is “gifted” or “naturally talented”. For those interested in this topic, I would strongly encourage you read PEAK by Ericsson and Pool.
Overall, whether social media or not, when comparing, be mindful of your situation (those similarity aspects mentioned earlier) as well as the possibility that what you see of others may not be a true representation of what another person does and what they look like. Therefore, being critical/skeptical of what you see or read about another person can help to know if this person could be a good comparison for you or not.
Social norms play a big role in why we do what we do. When it comes to lifestyle habits, such as eating and exercise behaviors, social norms strongly influenced what we do (Ball et al 2010; Higgs et al 2016). This comes from conscious and unconscious comparisons of what we do relative to what we perceive to be the norm. These social norms can stem from the wider societal/cultural norms, and the norms of close friends, family, and colleagues and many things between. The later group, our closer interpersonal connections, will likely have a bigger impact and is the one that we have more potential to change. For instance, we may need to change who we spend time with, or change the amount of time with certain people (often difficult but necessary).
Mentors and role models are the epitome of social comparison. Mentors are people we feel have done what we want to do and we search out their support to be able to achieve what they have achieved. Role models are people we feel have done what we want to do and their success can help to motivate us to make progress with our goals. In fact, role models (they need to be similar to ourselves, such as age, gender, etc) can be useful for building our self-efficacy (our feeling that we can change and improve), which is often one of the key drivers of starting and sticking to new behaviors (Reeve 2005; Rickert et al 2014 ). We look for mentors and have role models precisely because they have done what we want to do (upward comparison). We compare where we are now and where they are and use that comparison to move us forward.
With all that said, it should be made clear that we don’t want to only judge ourselves by what others have or do, particularly when we are actively working on improving ourselves. We should also use self-comparison (internal evaluations) to guide us. Therefore, we should be asking ourselves; are we improving from where we were? This is important and useful feedback. However, it is important to be as objective as possible. It is easy for us to fall prey to many thinking errors, which can lead to a false or misleading understanding of our current situation and if things are actually improving (Chabris & Simons 2010; Mlodinow 2012). To help, set clear goals and objectives. If the goal is to eat more veggies, assess how much you eat now and how much you want to eat (i.e., 2 servings, to 4 servings, respectively). Then measure, at least for a short period, if you are eating more. One other example is an objective of reducing weight. If this is a goal, then measure, on a scale (girth measurements can also be a good measure if done properly) to assess where you are and then frequently measure to see if it is moving down towards your specific goal. This feedback is valuable although it can be uncomfortable if things are not progressing. However, it is needed for progress. Therefore, self-comparisons are also important but objectivity and specificity should be applied to the things you are working on improving.
There is a one more related aspect, which is gratitude. Gratitude, the appreciation of what we have or what others have done for us, can have a number of positive psychological and physical benefits (Morin 2015; Sansone et al 2010; Wood et al 2010). These benefits are often both short-term and long-term. It seems helpful to frequently (at least once a week) to take a step back and be grateful. This is not to say that we she walk around with rose-colored glasses and not have any concerns about our current situation not have any desires to improve. Rather, acknowledging there are likely at least a couple things that we can be grateful about can help use keep things in perspective. Gratitude is likely more of an internal comparison as we appreciate what we have at this moment often because they are inherently good. However, there is also likely some downward comparison to this aspect, as we feel grateful for things that are important that others may have less.
In conclusion, not comparing ourselves to others is unrealistic and likely unhelpful. Garcia and Halldorsson highlight this, when they state;
“Social comparison is a natural psychological tendency and one that can exert a powerful influence on the way we feel and behave. Many people act as if social comparison is an ugly phenomenon and one to be avoided…In truth, social comparison has many positive aspects.” (2014, p.12).
Therefore, as highlighted above, we are going to compare ourselves to others, so do it correctly and it will likely have positive effects on how we feel and what we do. Furthermore, do not only use this to gauge your situation. Utilize self-comparisons as well. Finally, sprinkle some gratitude in the mix to help appreciate what we already have. Collectively, you will have a mindset that will help you deal with the challenges and setbacks that will likely occur during your journey of self-improvement.
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