The power of comparison

It is a deep part of human nature that we compare ourselves to other people.  A particularly interesting kind of comparison is the upward comparison in which you focus on someone you think is better than you in some way.

When you make an upward comparison, there are a number of different emotional reactions you might have.  As a sax player, I often get to hear amazing musicians play.  One reaction to hearing a great musician would be to admire their skill.  A second reaction would be to wish that I could play as well.  This kind of emotional reaction is a benign envy.  I want what the other person has.  A third reaction would be to feel a more destructive envy in which I recognize that the other player is better and with that something bad would happen to that player.

An interesting paper by Niels van de Ven, Marcel Zeelenberg, and Rik Pieters in the June, 2011 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that benign envy may be particularly useful in getting people motivated to work harder. 

In one study, college students were first put in a mindset that behavior change is easy or a mindset that it is hard.  These mindsets emerge from research by Carol Dweck and her colleagues, and I have written about them before in this blog.  Participants who were given a mindset that change is easy read about a person who overcame many obstacles to become a famous scientist.  Participants who were given a mindset that change is hard read about a person who was always on the road to being a great scientist and ultimately became a famous scientist.

 After reading this passage, participants read a newspaper article about an excellent student who did well in a national academic competition.  After reading this article, participants rated how much they felt benign envy (wanting to be like this student), admiration (appreciating what the student had accomplished) and more malicious envy.  Finally, the participants did what seemed like an unrelated study.  As part of that study, they estimated how many more hours they planned to study in the next academic semester. 

Participants who were given the mindset that change is easy tended to feel benign envy toward the excellent student they read about.  In contrast, participants who were given the mindset that change is hard tended to feel admiration toward the excellent student.

When asked later about study time, those people who thought that change is easy expressed that they planned to study more than those who thought change was hard.  A previous study in this series showed that having some kind of upward social comparison was important for influencing effort on a task, so it wasn't just the manipulation of mindset that affected the results.

There are two key lessons for self-improvement here.  First, keep an open mind about change.  If you put in the effort, then your performance will improve.  I may never be as good a sax player as some of the great musicians I hear, but I can get better.  Second, when you compare yourself to others, it is fine to envy what they have, as long as you use that envy to make yourself better rather than to tear other people down.

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