It’s normal to wonder how we measure up to other people. According to social comparison theory, this drive is part of our basic desire to understand ourselves and our place in the social world. But dwelling too much on these judgments has a cost.
Psychologists divide social comparisons into two main categories—downward and upward. Downward comparison involves comparing yourself to someone you perceive as worse off than yourself, and upward comparison involves comparing yourself to someone you perceive as better off. The comparisons may be based on appearance, health, intelligence, ability, social status, wealth, or any other attribute.
Research suggests that we’re more likely to make downward comparisons when our self-esteem is threatened—for example, if we’ve just received negative feedback—because these comparisons give us a boost, enhance our own perceived standing, and reassure us that things could be worse.
On the surface, downward comparisons may seem harmless, even healthy, but they have several drawbacks. First, to the extent that these comparisons form a basis for self-esteem, it's a fragile one because they depend on the continued misfortune of others. Downward comparison can also put a strain on our relationships. When we focus too narrowly on others’ negative attributes, we may miss the complete picture of their strengths and successes, which limits our ability to empathize and support them in good times and bad.
Upward comparison can also be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it can provide inspiration and hope, motivate us to improve our own situation, and provide useful information about how to overcome an obstacle. It can also give us a self-esteem boost, such as when we bask in the reflected glory of a successful close friend or family member.
On the other hand, upward comparison can fuel envy, low self-esteem, and schadenfreude. Like downward comparison, it can lead us to overlook the complexity of others’ lives, such as the potential suffering beneath the surface of friends' idealized images on social media. And it can generate unrealistic standards of beauty or success that are unlikely to be sustainable or healthy sources of motivation (e.g., “thinspiration”).
Is there a way to compare ourselves to others without falling into these traps? Research suggests that the answer is yes; it’s just a matter of perspective. Social comparison typically involves contrast and differentiation. When we consider our common humanity, it can yield very different results, promoting connection and understanding rather than distance and othering.
In one analysis, researchers proposed that when we identify with those who are less fortunate and recognize our own vulnerability, downward comparison can increase feelings of compassion and concern for others.
Upward comparison may be less likely to elicit destructive emotions when we remember that even the most successful people struggle in some ways and are just as human and fallible as we are—and that, for all our foibles and shortcomings, we are just as capable of greatness.