Social Comparison Theory

(With co-author Michael Church)

I was chatting with an acquaintance recently. She was telling me about her 20-year old nephew who had recently returned home following 3 months in rehab for alcohol and drug problems. She said, “Unfortunately, his parents were soon enabling him again, and it wasn’t more than a couple of weeks that he was hanging out with his old buddies, the ones he always did drugs with. I figure he’ll be back in jail or rehab before you know it. He’s got three older brothers and they’re all rock solid. Good educations, good jobs, good judgment. But this kid, he just doesn’t measure up to them. I used to wonder why they weren’t a better influence, but sometimes I think he looks at his brothers’ success and gets down on himself because he just doesn’t have it.”

Social psychologists call it social comparison, a concept developed nearly 50 years ago. One aspect of people’s evaluation of themselves – “How am I doing?” – takes place when they watch and compare themselves to what others are doing. Take a look at your own behavior. Have you been positively influenced by observing a friend or family member? Have you used their example to track your own development? If you’re like a lot of people you can probably identify some role model who motivated you to improve your own life. Many young people are spurred to do better when they have positive examples in their life like parents, siblings, a teacher, or a coach. But the comparison can go wrong.

When can comparisons make you feel bad? Judging yourself against others is likely to make you feel bad if you regularly chose those who are shining examples of certain traits. There will always be those better than you, and those worse than you, so why restrict yourself to always choosing the former for comparison? For example, you might believe you have a less active social life than others, but you don’t realize you’re always comparing yourself only to the most social people you know. It’s also possible that your comparison itself is based on a faulty assumption. In the case we just described, for instance, was the woman’s nephew negatively affected by being around his successful brothers and comparing himself to them? Or, did he carry a faulty assumption with his comparison because he elevated his brothers’ success far beyond where it really was? Consider the case of a college freshman whose self-esteem and confidence were in the toilet. Seems he was convinced that all the other students in his classes – none of whom he knew – were geniuses and he was the one dummy in the class. His assumption was flawed.

In addition to family models, young people compare themselves against others they see – those in media sources, peers, and subcultures. What is the effect on our children and adolescents who witness on a recurring basis: over half of our population being obese; at least ten percent showing drug and alcohol abuse; a veritable epidemic of Type II diabetes; more recently, refusing to take preventive sickness measures like wear a face covering or get a vaccination; and, a precipitous increase in the daily use of medical marijuana? These influences can build up over time and diminish self-esteem and contribute to depression.

Fortunately, most people have the social skills and impulse control to keep their standards for social comparison appropriate; those who don’t – especially impressionable young people who spend too much time on social media – need to be helped to understand the dangers of social comparison, and how to focus on using the process to motivate themselves to improve, not bring themselves down. For instance, social comparison can reinforce self-esteem when people focus on reviewing their memories of good times with friends. In fact, this is one aspect of social media – sharing positive times and good memories – that contributes significantly to psychological well-being.

The coping lesson? Be realistic about your comparisons, and focus on those that motivate you to act better – with reality-based acceptance, purpose, values, and accountability.

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