- Social comparison can make us focus on outcomes over process when setting goals.
- Goals for health and fitness are intimately connected to self-perception.
- Focusing on personal growth and achievement makes change a positive process.
Unfortunately, health and fitness goals we set often have to do with wanting to be like someone else. We have TV, celebrities of all sorts, and social media that help us compare ourselves to others, and advertising that suggests that we can be happy if we just lose some weight.
It turns out that comparing ourselves to others is normal and inevitable. Science has shown us that the survival value of this has been around for a long time. Early humans would have needed to be able to assess others and their potential relationship to their own well-being. Is this person (or animal) a threat? What is their reason for approaching us? Is it cooperation, competition, or meal time?
In 1954, Leon Festinger coined the term, “social comparison theory.” Festinger’s theory casts a wide net, saying that, in general, we look to others to establish a point of reference so that we can figure out how we stack up. We want to know how we appear to others. This theory has gone through some evolution over the years, and rightly so. There have been many social changes since Festinger came up with his theory.
Now, of course, there are many more “others.” Because of social media, it can appear that everyone is having a better time than we are, is more successful, is happier, and has more friends. There is a constant barrage of programs to help you be more successful, reach your goals, and earn the respect of others. Clickbait has supplied us with phrases like, “feel more secure,” “make your dreams come true,” or “finally lose those unwanted pounds.”
The Art of Goal Setting
Often in goal setting, we are encouraged to follow the SMART acronym. That would be something that is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound. In many ways, SMART goals seem to cover all the bases. SMART goals can dovetail nicely with setting small change goals, which has been shown again and again to be effective. You are to pick something reasonable, and something that you can accomplish, given your complicated life. But the goals in the area of losing weight and exercising more involve body and mind in a deeply personal way. Your goals need to be intimately involved with how you perceive yourself.
As such, how you choose each goal is a critical piece that SMART goals leave out. If, like so many others, you are thinking the “new you” looks like the “after” pictures your see in advertisements, there is a problem.
In that case, the goal being set has nothing to do with the process of getting there and everything to do with outcome, some sort of “new you” that will make you happy. Again, according to social comparison theory and many other studies, this kind of thing is normal. Our brains want us to be like what see on TV or elsewhere.
To fight back, we need to help people redesign their thoughts about goal setting for health and fitness.
For example, how does one set up their overarching goals? Where exactly are they headed when they start the process? What is their definition of the “new me"?
Making It About Personal Growth
To change the emphasis from outcome to process, a few key things need to happen.
First of all, the process needs to be put in terms of personal growth.
Research has shown again and again that it is what lifts you up and develops a sense of achievement that keeps you engaged in the process of change—not something that compares you to others and runs the risk of making you feel like a failure.
For example, many people feel that they just don’t have enough willpower or the ability to stick to a diet or exercise program. Reading between the lines, this really means that the person feels that they are not enough. With this kind of thinking, you are already behind the eight ball on your way to the “new you.”
Science has shown that people are not motivated when they feel inadequate. It means that, beneath it all, they feel they are not up to the task. It can be tempting to look around at others who seem to have won the fight and feel that they are somehow different, or better, than you.
Making the Switch
Second, we humans have a special gift that other animals do not have. We have the ability to think about our thinking, often referred to as “metacognition.”
This opens the door for us to learn, maintain a posture of curiosity, and overcome innate emotions and reactions by recognizing them for what they are. We can then use our executive brains to guide us. But this takes awareness and practice.
We need to emphasize that, for each goal established, there needs to be a considerable amount of focus and practice. We humans can use our executive brains to overcome our tendency to compare and compete, but there is no on–off switch for this. Our brains will continue to compare ourselves to others. If we have been used to listening to the comparing brain, we will have to learn to stay focused on the executive in our brain to keep us involved in a process that is personally uplifting.
Finally, each specific goal needs to focus on the skills needed to reach that goal. Skills need to be linked to the joy of learning something new and indelibly linked to personal growth. Each new skill learned can be put into the context of process and progress.
Tall order? Yes! But, we can revise how we set our health and fitness goals. We can realize that we have a natural tendency to compare ourselves to others. Then we can make adjustments so that the changes we are after become part of us because they lift us up, not tear us down.
Dijkstra, P., Gibbons, F.X., Buunk, A. P. (2010). Social comparison theory. In J.E. Maddux & J.P. Tangney (Eds.) Social Psychological Foundations of Clinical Psychology, 195-211. The Guilford Press.
Dunbar, R.I.M. (2003). The Social Brain: Mind, Language, and Society in Evolutionary Perspective. Annual Review of Anthropology. 32:163-181.
Beers, E. “Why can’t I look more like them?” How the comparison complex makes you hate on your body – and 5 ways to beat it for good. Precision Nutrition: How to stop comparing yourself to others physically.
Livingston, J.A. (2003). Metacognition: An Overview. ERIC Number ED474273.