With Whom Do We Compare?

We compare ourselves with those who share comparison-related attributes.

Posted Jan 27, 2018

You don’t have to grow up a twin like I did to realize how much social comparisons punctuate many important aspects of life—but twins surely know this well.

My twin brother and I have zigzagged through life in our separate ways, yet we have always had each other as a standard through which we assessed our abilities. Perhaps because the effects of comparisons for us were so acute, we strived to be as equal as possible, neither wanting the other to feel the lesser on any important domain.

In middle school, for example, we entered a city track meet in the 400 meters. We crossed the finish line tied for third. It was more important that we came in together than either of us win the race, as gratifying as winning would have been.

It is probably fortunate that our career paths have taken us in different directions. As research by the social psychologist Abe Tesser suggests, diverging career choices in siblings generally mute unpleasant contrast effects. Indeed, when siblings avoid competing in the same domains, they can relish their own individual successes as well as bask in the achievements of their siblings. 

My brother and I avoid using Facebook. Maybe this is because we have had more than our fill of social comparisons. As beneficial and fun as some aspect of Facebook can be, the social comparison downsides we can do without. It remains to be seen how the folks at Facebook will tinker with it so as to best balance the bitter with the sweet.

Make no mistake about it. Social comparisons matter. For me, an old joke captures this truth well, if not delicately:

Two hikers come across a Grizzly bear some distance ahead of them.

The bear has spotted them and seems to be in a hungry mood.

The first hiker immediately removes his hiking boots. He then snatches a pair of sneakers from his backpack and begins putting them on his feet.

The second hiker, who has been frozen in panic, finally says.

“Wh. . . what are you doing? Don’t you get it? Nobody can outrun a Grizzly bear.”

The first hiker, his demeanor calm, says, “I don’t need to outrun the bear. I just need to outrun you.”

Social psychologists have studied social comparison processes for over 50 years now. One question frequently gets center stage: With whom do we compare?

Yes, social comparisons permeate our lives, but some matter more than others. Some we seek out more than others. Which ones?

The straightforward answer is that we mostly compare with others who are similar to us on comparison-related attributes. These are people who because of their gender, age, background, etc., provide a kind of control condition through which our own actions and achievements can be contrasted in a clean, uncluttered way. 

My favorite example of the importance of comparison-related attributes in social comparison is a small event that happened when one of my daughters attended a daycare when she was about four years old.

Near the entrance of the facility was a wide, low-slung chalkboard, a favorite place for the kids to draw on with different colored chalk. One day, when I arrived to pick my daughter up, I entered the center to find her using this chalkboard. Right next to her was one of her friends. As it happened, this little girl and my daughter shared the same birthdate and were the best of buddies.   

Both had been working hard at their respective drawings, neither efforts resembling anything I could decipher, as one would expect for kids their age. As soon as I finished greeting my daughter, she extended her arm and offered me the chalk she was using.

“Draw somebody,” she begged.

I took the chalk and drew a couple of fairly decent looking human figures – and gave the chalk back to her. From there, my daughter began filling in some of the blank spaces.

A moment later, the mom of my daughter’s friend came in. As she soon took in the scene, her face shifted from joy at seeing her child to shock when she saw my daughter’s apparent artwork compared to her own daughter’s age-appropriate chicken scratch.

She almost screamed, “Did she do that…did she do that?!!!”

I quickly put her out her misery and revealed my role. She looked a little embarrassed, but I sensed she may have been even more relieved. My daughter and her friend shared the key attributes of age and gender, and, identified as most parents are with their kids, the contrasting comparison of each child’s drawing had hit her hard.

References

Smith, R. H. (2000) Assimilative and contrastive emotional reactions to upward and downward social comparisons. In J. Suls L. Wheeler (Eds.), Handbook of social comparison: Theory and research (pp. 173 -200). New York: Plenum.

Tesser, A. (1988). Toward a self-evaluation maintenance model of social behavior. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 21), 181-227. New York: Academic Press.

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