Social Comparison Theory
Why We Can’t Stop Thinking About Other People’s Lives
Observations on jealousy, social comparison theory, and being human.
Posted February 8, 2019
When I’m not obsessing over my own relationships, I am often obsessing over other people’s.
- How did he get her?
- But she’s a monster.
- He’s so boring.
- And she’s so shallow…
This list of unsolicited judgments never ends. Meanwhile, these incomprehensible romances often blossom into marriage, kids, and some socially acceptable version of happily ever after.
This is not a good feeling — as I’m not quite there in my own life. I’m not alone in feeling this way, either.
For many millennials, debt remains the un-fundable wall that separates us from reaching significant life milestones — 14 percent have delayed marriage, and 15 percent have delayed having children, according to a recent NBC News/GenForward poll.
But money (or lack thereof) isn’t the only explanation. This poll from the New York Times finds that, of those who aren’t having children, wanting “leisure time” (36 percent) tops the list of reasons why. About a third say they haven’t found a partner or can’t afford childcare.
As a result, the U.S. fertility rate has been steadily declining, hitting a record low last year. According to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, the country isn’t making enough babies to replace the population.
It goes without saying that there is no shortage of stats and logical, insightful think pieces on why people are postponing marriage and/or having kids. I’ve read many of them — multiple times, even. But the truth is, none of it really makes me feel better about my own situation.
Yet, it's what makes us human. Or, more precisely, social comparison theory is what makes us feel so behind.
The man behind this theory is social psychologist Leon Festinger, who hypothesized, "There exists, in the human organism, a drive to evaluate his opinions and abilities." He argued that how a person perceived himself in a situation would have significant "bearing on his behavior," and "the holding of incorrect opinions and/or inaccurate appraisals of one's abilities can be punishing or even fatal." And in most situations, the way to evaluate oneself is highly contingent on the performance of others. For example, he writes, "If a person evaluates his running ability, he will do so by comparing his time to run some distance with the times that other persons have taken."
According to Festinger, however, there are two types of social comparison: upward and downward. We make upward comparisons with people who we think are better than us, and downward comparisons with those who we think are worse off. I'm likely stating the obvious here, but making downward comparisons tends to make us feel happier and better about our abilities, whereas upward comparisons usually make us feel like we aren't good enough.
Which is why, if you're going to compare yourself to someone, look down. This is easier said than done, particularly when many people in your social circle are seemingly ahead in life. Being a jealous person isn't doing me any favors either.
As I look through my previous posts on this site, I notice that so much of what I write about are things I’ve struggled with and my attempts at understanding or “solving" them with science or psychology. The reality is that while I may understand why something happens, rarely does anything get solved — at least not in the way that I’d like it to.
But today I’m taking a different approach. What social comparison theory gently reassures us is that we're simply human; we are meant to make mistakes. And how other people perceive us will indubitably affect how we see ourselves. On any given day, we can make upward comparisons which make us feel like failures (i.e., today), or downward comparisons which energize us with pure joy.
As much as I hate to admit it, I decide how others make me feel. Jealousy is my own doing. But thanks to Festinger, maybe it doesn't always have to be that way.