Social Comparison: Taming the Beast

Comparing yourself to others is a brain loop you can manage

Posted Apr 19, 2012

People compare themseves to others even though it feels bad. Your brain skims past the good in your life and finds ways that you come up short. We have inherited this social radar from earlier mammals. Animals compare themselves to others because it reduces conflict. Our limbic system has been making social comparisons for millions of years, so we have to learn to live with it.

"I don't indulge in such foolishness," you may think. But your mammal brain controls your neurochemicals. When you see someone else get a nod from the boss, or a better seat, or a lover with a smaller waist, a little cortisol may be triggered. This chemical alerts an animal to survival threats. You know your survival is not literally threatened by unfavorable social comparisons. But brain chemicals have a funny way of shaping perceptions. Once your cortisol flows, your higher cortex looks for evidence of survival threats. And it's good at finding what it looks for, so you risk magnifying that icky cortisol feeling. What's a mammal to do?

Some psychologists recommend focusing on those who have less than you. I think this makes things worse. You feel good for a moment when you construct favorable comparisons. But the good feeling feeds the beast. It trains your brain to seek good feelings by making social comparisons. Of course, the more you compare, the more you stumble on the myriad ways in which others one-up you. Your pleasure seeking leads to pain and you end up feeling worse.

A better strategy is to recognize your cortisol as a blast from the past. In the animal world, social comparison literally comes before food and sex. When an animal sees a tasty morsel or a mating opportunity, it looks around to see who's watching before it goes for it. A mammal knows it can survive without this one reward, but it might not survive a nasty conflict with a bigger troopmate who's eyeing the same opportunity.

When two mammals meet, each brain makes a quick evaluation of the other. Animals avoid conflict because the weaker individual usually submits to avoid getting hurt. Each species has dominance and submission gestures that get the business out of the way quickly. Conflict only erupts when two individuals are almost equally matched and each brain believes it could win. Have you ever known two people who are extremely similar and but absolutely hate each other? Their mammal brains perceive the risk posed by unresolved social dominance. 

Our brains seek dominance for a good reason. You feel bad if you always submit, defer, and cede to others. If an animal always took the one-down position, it wouldn't get enough food to be healthy or enough reproductive opportunity to keep its genes alive. You may not care about your genes, but you are descended from people who reproduced successfully. Your brain was naturally selected to get your attention when others stand in the way of meeting your survival needs. When others have better abs or more "friends" or bigger grants, your survival mechanism may get triggered. You are not consciously linking social slights to the risk of  your genes being annihilated. But animals don't think this consciously either. Neurochemicals don't need conscious intent to do their thing. I have explored this in earlier posts, herehere, and here.

So the next time social comparison gives you a little twinge, remember that your response is real because your animal brain controls the neurochemicals. But you can stop yourself from rushing toward evidence of threat. You can remind yourself that you are much more than a DNA carrier, and that you are basically safe. Soon, the survival-threat feeling will subside, and then you can decide if the latest social comparison affects your well-being.  I have discussed this practice in earlier posts here and here, and in my books I, Mammal and Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, & Endorphin Levels.

Some of the time, your social radar will report that you are the one who’s on top. You're better and smarter and you got it going on! It would be nice to feel this all the time, but your brain did not evolve to do that. A chimp who always presumed it was best would be clawed to death by bigger, stronger rivals, if predators didn’t get it first. Survival depends on making realistic comparisons, NOT on producing a good feeling all the time. So instead of presuming you should always feel on top, just enjoy that feeling when it comes and accept it as a primal illusion when it goes. You'll end up better off if you don't try to force good feelings by focusing on those you are above.

Your brain will check other people out and compare them to you whether you like it or not. You were born with a social alarm system, and if you try to ignore it, it may just ring louder to get your attention. So accept your social radar, but remind yourself that it is not fact, and that you are safe in this moment. It's not easy being a mammal!