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How Does Social Comparison Affect You?

By: Bridgette W. Gottwald, LPC, NCC

Social comparison — it’s a “pervasive social phenomenon.” Not only do we utilize comparison to judge the standing or ranking of ourselves and others, but we also use it to evaluate current and past outcomes, as well as future prospective outcomes. According to Brene Brown, this means that “significant parts of our lives, including our future, are shaped by comparing ourselves to others.” Comparison can be a difficult word to define but in my work and research, this has been the most useful definition I have found:

“Comparison is the crush of conformity from one side and competition from the other – it’s trying to simultaneously fit in and stand out.”

So essentially what this is saying is — “Be like everyone else, but better.”

Comparison typically comes from a place of anger, fear, shame, and sadness. We have a drive to constantly be evaluating ourselves and others. Many social psychologists “consider social comparison something that happens to us.” However, even if we can’t choose if we are going to engage in social comparison or not, what we can choose is how we let it affect us.

According to Festinger, social comparison theory “posits that people strive to gain self-knowledge by comparing themselves with similar others, who usually offer the highest diagnostic information about themselves. Essentially, people “make meaning” of their performance and success by comparing themselves to relevant other people. We look to other people not only for information but also for validation. Social comparisons, also known as self-evaluations compared to others, have implications on well-being and health, particularly mental health.

“People make social comparisons when they need both to reduce uncertainty about their abilities, performance, and other socially defined attributes, and when they need to rely on an external standard against which to judge themselves.” (Journal of Adult Development, 2006).

Is There a Dark Side to Social Comparison?

Although social comparison can have positive effects, such as self-enhancement or motivation, frequent social comparisons can also have a “dark side.” A study in the Journal of Adult Development found that people that often make social comparisons “experience more destructive emotions and behaviors.” Another interesting function that social comparison can serve is “to manage negative affect.” Therefore, one can affiliate upwards in reaching for self-enhancement or essentially improving overall well-being. According to this view, social comparison can be utilized in a fairly simple fashion — “if they are better off than similar others (downward social comparison), they feel satisfied, if they are worse off than similar others (upward social comparison), they feel dissatisfied. It’s important to be observant of how a person is “choosing their targets.” Is the person subconsciously comparing themselves to someone “to enhance well-being or to cope with a threat to self-esteem?” 

So, based on this information, not only can social comparison increase well-being, but it can decrease well-being as well, which is what is considered to be the dark side of social comparison. Researchers have found that unhappy people make more frequent social comparisons and this is correlated to low self-esteem, depression, and neuroticism. It’s more common to make social comparisons when feeling insecure, uncertain, or unhappy with our own “self-worth or internal standards.”

If you find yourself comparing yourself relying on social comparison, it might be time to check in and ask yourself what the function of this behavior is. Are you looking to feel better? How is it serving you? Remember that this is a common behavior or strategy that seeks to better understand ourselves (and our status) relating to ability, opinion, emotional reaction, and more. You’re better than you think!

If you’d like to talk to someone about social comparisons, then connect with Symmetry Counseling today. Explore our counseling services online to see how we can help you on your mental health journey, and contact our intake specialists to get matched with a therapist in Chicago, Phoenix, Texas, or Washington D.C. today! 

References:

Brown, B. (2021). Atlas of the heart: Mapping meaningful connection and the language of human experience. Random House Publishing.  

Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Hum. Relat. 7, 117–140. doi: 10.1177/001872675400700202White, Langer, Yariv and Welch (2006). Journal of Adult Development, Vol. 13, No. 1. Retrieved from:https://lyariv.mycpanel.princeton.edu/papers/DarkSide1.pdf

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