We All Compare Ourselves to Other People
We do this even when the comparisons aren’t meaningful. Even when they make us unhappy. Even when they don’t actually make us better, smarter, or more productive human beings.
So why do we compare ourselves to other people?
Is there any benefit to seeing how we stack up against others?
We’re designed to understand ourselves. This capacity for self-reflection is one of the defining characteristics of our species.
And since we live in a world populated by other life forms that look and behave a lot like us, that something else becomes someone else — other people.
Which is why you’ll compare yourself to a model on the cover of Vogue or the ripped guy in your bootcamp class, rather than your internal standard of beauty or a textbook on human physiology.
When nonsocial concepts aren’t available or compelling enough for comparison — and, spoiler alert, they’re usually not — we’ll start to see how we stack up against other people.
This peculiar drive was first explored seriously by a social psychologist named Leon Festinger in 1954.
Festinger basically said that people evaluate their opinions and abilities by comparing themselves to other people for two reasons:
First, to reduce uncertainty in the areas in which they’re comparing themselves.
And second, to learn how to define themselves.
He called this concept social comparison theory, and it’s one of the biggest contributions to the field of social psychology.
What Festinger really nailed was that human beings can’t actually define themselves intrinsically or independently. They can only define themselves in relation to someone else. When it comes to the big questions of Identity and Self and Who Am I?, we need to look at other people.
But he actually went a bit further than that, and that’s where things really get interesting.
For one thing, Festinger pointed out that the tendency to compare ourselves to another person decreases as the difference between our opinion or ability and the other person’s increases.
In other words, the more similar we are to another person in some way we think is important, the more we tend to compare ourselves to that person. - 43 minutes ago