Can Self-Comparison Be A Good Thing?

“Stop comparing yourself to everyone else.” It’s something mothers say all the time and yet it may be something we are hardwired to do.

In the 1950s, Leon Festinger formulated what he called “social comparison theory”—it is a theory predicated on the idea that we determine our own social and personal worth based on how we measure up to others. In other words, in the absence of objective means of evaluation, we are constantly evaluating ourselves—our intelligence, our attractiveness, wealth, success etc.—in reference to those around us. According to the theory, people prefer to compare themselves with others who are similar to them. After all, what would be the point of a novice pianist comparing themselves to Beethoven?

There are upsides to social comparison. Students may feel more competent and confident when they compare themselves to other students who didn’t do as well on a biology test. It can also be a source of motivation—for example a runner may want to emulate the performance of a fellow runner who beats them by a tenth of a second.

Likewise, comparisons can make us more grateful for what we have and put disappointments and hardships in perspective. The thought, “Perhaps I don’t have it so bad, after all” often comes to mind when we think of others who are less fortunate. This tends to ring true when we stop and think about the natural disasters affecting so many people across the United States and beyond right now. 

That said, there are many downsides to social comparison. Research suggests that unhappy people make more frequent social comparisons than happy people and it makes them feel worse whereas happy people are less affected by it. The tendency to seek social comparison is correlated with low self-esteem and depression.

Comparing ourselves to others may be in our DNA but the context and comparisons have changed dramatically with social media. Rather than making comparisons to people who are in the same boat as we are, we now have a global landscape to draw from. Research explains:

As people are increasingly relying on social networking sites for a variety of everyday tasks, they risk overexposure to upward social comparison information that may have a cumulative detrimental impact on wellbeing. Moreover, as prior research has show that people with low self-esteem often use social networking sites to express themselves in what they perceive to be a safe environment, this may result in a vicious cycle of using social networking sites to receive social support but therein exposing themselves to upward social comparison information—impairing self-esteem and restarting the cycle.

Mass media is one of the commanding influences today for social comparison and studies show it takes a toll on our wellbeing:

Research has found that women who report frequently comparing themselves to other women, especially women in the media, are more likely to show signs of negative mood and body image disturbance (Schooler et al., 2004). Tiggemann and Mcgill (2004) found that women participants’ brief exposure to media images of females led to increased levels of body dissatisfaction and weight anxiety. 

In fact, 70 percent of women feel depressed after looking at a woman’s fashion magazine for just three minutes! 

Looking at images of friends’ “perfect lives” on social media has been shown to have a similar effect. Amazing parties, fabulous photos of people having a ball without us, and picture perfect images of a stress-free life can trigger resentment, envy and low self-esteem. We forget that these pictures are highly curated to portray life at its best—the in-between, non-Photoshopped moments when the kids are melting down while the souffle deflates rarely make the social media cut.

The important thing to keep in mind is that these images are not reality. Studies show that when images are viewed with this in mind and with an understanding that the images represent a fantasy, they have less of a negative effect and can even improve mood.

As one saying goes:

“You will never look like the girl in the magazine. The girl in the magazine doesn’t even look like the girl in the magazine.”

Bottom line: Enjoy these images for the fantasy, the beauty, the inspiration and the creativity. Remember that they have nothing to do with reality.

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman