Why do we compare ourselves against other people?

We all compare ourselves to other people.  We do this even when the comparisons make us unhappy.   Why do we do this? How does this tendency to compare with others affect our wellbeing?  Is there a way to overcome the desire to compare?  I’m going to look at each of these questions individually.  

  • First, why do we compare ourselves to other people?
  • Second, is there any benefit to seeing how we stack up against others?
  • And third, if there isn’t a benefit to comparing ourselves to others, how can we stop?

Social comparison theory

Let’s start with the first question, why do we compare ourselves to other people.  And to answer this question we’re going to look at some research done more than 60 years ago.  In 1954 psychologist Leon Festinger proposed the social comparison theory which studies this tendency to compare ourselves with others and seeks to find some answers as to why we do it.  

The social comparison theory is kind of long and contains 9 separate hypotheses, as well as several corollaries and derivations, so I’m going to summarize and simplify some of the most important points. 

Humans have an innate drive to evaluate our opinions and our abilities, and also a drive to improve our abilities.  If we don’t have an objective means to evaluate those things then we compare them with other people’s abilities and opinions.  Social comparison theory also talks about how we typically choose who to compare ourselves with.  

Why do we compare ourselves to other people?

So I’m going to go back to my original questions.  The first question is ‘Why do we compare ourselves to other people?’  The social comparison theory highlights some observable human behaviors which are useful, but to understand why we do these things, we need to not only observe the data but also read between the lines. 

As human beings we have a few basic questions.  Who am I? How am I doing? Am I improving? Do I fit in?  Festinger’s social comparison theory addresses our natural methods of trying to answer those questions.  

An attempt to meet basic needs

To say it another way, as humans we have a few basic needs.  First, we want to know who we are, we want to understand our own identity, we want to be able to define ourselves.  Second, we want to see how we’re doing. We want to progress and become better. Third, we want to belong. Humans are social creatures, we want relationships and connections with other people.  Although Festinger doesn’t specifically use the words ‘belonging’ or ‘fit in.’ He does talk about our attraction to groups with similar opinions and the changes we’re willing to make to align with those groups.  I think today we would use the word ‘belonging.’    

How to define a human

One point that Festinger brilliantly observes, is that human beings can’t actually define themselves intrinsically or independently.  They can only define themselves in relation to someone else. The only exception that I can think of is Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy.  If you ask him who he is or what he is, he’ll just answer “I am Groot.” He defines himself intrinsically and independently, but he’s not a human (and he’s not real). 

If you ask anybody else, they’ll give an answer that includes a relationship to another person or their association with a group, usually a profession. For example, when people introduce themselves, they usually say something like, “Hi, I’m a teacher,” (or a doctor, or a mechanic, or whatever their profession may be). 

If you press further into the question “Who are you?” they’ll usually answer with things like, I am a mother or father, I’m a sister or brother, an aunt or uncle. People define themselves in relation to someone else or something else. We can’t get away with just saying, “I am Groot” as a definition of who we are.   

So one of the reasons why we compare ourselves to other people is to define and understand our own identity.  

The need for a measuring stick

Humans also want to progress and become better, we have an innate drive to evaluate ourselves.  We want to see how we’re doing; we want a measuring stick of some kind, and if we don’t have an objective means to evaluate our abilities and our opinions then we compare them with other people’s abilities and opinions.  

People also want to belong; we want to be connected to other people.  We compare our abilities and our opinions in order to seek groups that are similarly minded, we’re searching for where we fit in.  

We compare ourselves to other people as an attempt to evaluate our abilities and meet some very basic human needs. 

Is there any benefit to comparing with others? 

My next question was “Is there any benefit to seeing how we stack up against others?”

My answer is, “It depends.” 

It depends on why we’re comparing ourselves in the first place.  Wait a minute, didn’t I already answer that question, it’s about evaluating ourselves and meeting our needs for identity, progression, and belonging?  Well, yes, and no. It gets a little more complicated.

Yes, we’re trying to meet our needs and evaluate ourselves, but how are we going about meeting those needs?  Are we comparing to objectively evaluate our abilities, or are we comparing to determine our value and our worth?  

Motivation for comparison

Let me explain a little about how those are different.  If we’re comparing with other people for self-evaluation and growth, it’s about asking questions like ‘How am I doing?’ and ‘Is there something I can learn or do better from watching what other people are doing?’  This is alluded to in Festinger’s fourth hypothesis which talks about the drive to improve our abilities.  

My personal opinion is that the fourth hypothesis of the Social Comparison Theory is actually an intersection or overlap of the Social Learning Theory , created by Albert Bandura.  The social learning theory basically says that one of the major ways we learn is by observing other people and imitating or modeling their behavior.  For example babies learn how to talk by observing and imitating their parents.

However, since the social comparison theory was created about twenty years before the social learning theory, Festinger obviously didn’t have those words available to describe what he was observing,  but both theories suggest that humans have a natural drive to learn and progress, and we watch other people to learn new things and see what’s possible.  

An example of self-evaluation and self-improvement

George Washington Carver is an excellent example of a person who used the positive, self-evaluation method of social comparison and social learning and he changed the world because of it.  

George Washington Carver was born as a slave in the early 1860’s.  Because of his race, his position, and the social climate of the day, he wasn’t able to gain an education in a traditional schoolhouse during his youth, but he didn’t give up on his drive to learn and progress.  He learned by observing people and nature around him. Every time he saw someone doing something that looked hard, he would say to himself, “Well, they did that with their own two hands. I’ve got hands, and I’ll bet I can learn to do it, too.”  

He became a great teacher and a great scientist.  He was eventually admitted into college, where he excelled and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.  He organized the department of agriculture at Tuskegee Institute where his creative experiments brought him international fame.  People came from all over the world to visit with him including Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Mahatma GandhiTheodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt, and the Crown Prince of Sweden.   

So is it possible to learn and progress by watching what other people are doing? The example of George Washington Carver would suggest that the answer is yes.  

Comparing to establish rank and enhance self-worth

But there’s another, and far more common, method of social comparison and that is comparing ourselves to others in order to determine our self worth and particularly to boost our self-esteem.  This is the kind of comparison that gets us into trouble.  It has nothing to do with measuring and improving our abilities and has everything to do with pride.

Let’s talk a little about pride.  The word pride can mean different things to different people, so I want to make sure we’re on the same page.  Pride can mean a feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements. It can be associated with confidence and self-respect.  All these meanings of the word pride are positive and desirable, but there’s another meaning of the word pride that is negative and undesirable. Pride can mean self-centeredness, conceit, boastfulness, arrogance, or haughtiness.  

A deeper definition of pride

However, some people aren’t aware that there’s an even deeper meaning of the word pride that is more negative and damaging than merely being haughty or self-centered.  This kind of pride is all about evaluating our value, self worth, and rank based on being better or worse than other people. The heart of this negative, comparative kind of pride is animosity, antagonism, and enmity.  All these words indicate being in opposition with someone and having hostility towards them. This kind of pride leads to envy, coveting, jealousy, anger, dissatisfaction, feelings of failure, and withholding forgiveness, praise and gratitude.  

Furthermore pride makes it very difficult to be happy for other people’s successes, because with this comparative pride, our success and our failure depends inversely on the success or failure of other people.  In other words, this kind of pride says that if you succeed, then I am a failure, but if you fail, then I succeed.  

C.S. Lewis explains that “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man… It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone.”

“Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man… It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone.”
C.S. Lewis

Motivation and outcome

Let me give a couple examples of how our motivation for comparing affects the outcome.  

In general there are two kinds of social comparison: upward social comparison and downward social comparison.  Upward social comparison is when we compare ourselves with those who we believe are better than us, and downward social comparison is when we compare ourselves with those who we believe are worse off than ourselves.

Upward Social Comparison motivation and outcome

A person who is using social comparison as a means of self-evaluation, will see someone else’s success when comparing upward and think, “Oh that’s cool, how can I do that?”  They might figure out what they did and do those same things, or even ask that person to mentor them so they can learn more. They use upward comparisons to improve their current level of ability.  George Washington Carver was brilliant at this. I love the attitude he demonstrated by thinking, “They did that with their own two hands. I’ve got hands, and I’ll bet I can learn to do it, too.” 

On the other hand, when those people who are using prideful comparison to enhance their own self worth look at someone who they believe is better than they are, they don’t feel inspired or encouraged at all.  Instead they feel a range of emotions including: anger, hostility, jealousy, envy, resentment, personal failure, justification, blame, dissatisfaction, and so on.  

Endless opportunities for upward social comparison

The fascination with celebrity culture and spending a lot of time on social-media gives us endless opportunities to compare with people who we think are better than us, and many of these people appear to be perfect.  Subsequent research on the social comparison theory shows that people who regularly compare themselves to others experience deep feelings of dissatisfaction and anxiety about their own progress in life. Comparison to determine our self worth makes us feel worse about ourselves.  A person using prideful social comparison to determine their self worth can only be happy and satisfied when everyone else is doing the same or worse than they are.

This leads to another direction that prideful social comparison can take, and that is that in trying to make ourselves feel better, we criticize other people and try to tear them down.  This is very important because remember that according to comparative pride, If someone else succeeds then that means that I failed so there’s a desire to bring them down too. The social comparison theory verifies this tendency.  If someone has been comparing with someone else, but then stops comparing with them, (probably because the comparison was making that person feel like a failure), then the next step is to belittle and vilify them so they’re the bad guy and it’s okay to hate them.  It’s an attempt to calm a bruised ego. 

Downward social comparison motivation and outcome

A person who is using social comparison as a means of self-evaluation, might respond with a sense of satisfaction realizing how far they have come and feelings of gratitude for their current abilities or circumstances when they compare downward.  They typically show compassion for people who are worse off and seek ways to help and encourage them.  Again, George Washington Carver is an excellent example of this. As he rose in his status and abilities, his greatest desire was to help lift others as well.  And he did. He improved so many people’s lives through his work. 

However, when a person is using prideful comparison to determine their value and boost their self esteem,  it has a very different outcome. They tend to look down on other people in order to make themselves feel better about their abilities and their self worth.  They might think, “Well I may not be great at something, but at least I’m better than someone else.” They rejoice when other people fail, because prideful comparison says that if you fail, then I succeed.   

It depends on the purpose

So in answer to the question, Is there any benefit to seeing how we stack up against others? I have to say, it depends on your purpose for comparing.   If the purpose of comparison is done for self-evaluation, then observing and comparing can be a valuable tool for learning and self-assessment, but if the purpose of comparison is done to determine self worth or to improve self-image, then the answer is no. 

Absolutely not.  

How can you determine which purpose and motivation you have for comparison?  It’s really quite simple. If your comparisons lead you to feel grateful, content, compassionate, inspired or motivated to become better then you are using comparing for self-evaluation and improvement. 

However, if your comparisons lead you to feel envy, coveting, jealousy, anger, resentment, blame, justification, judgmentalness, bias, dissatisfaction, hatred, guilt, anxiety, or feelings of failure then you are using prideful comparison to determine your self worth and to build your self esteem, even if you don’t realize that that is what you’re doing.  

Prideful comparison is not good for anyone, but research shows that it is especially damaging to those who are currently struggling with low self esteem or depression. 

“You may be using social comparison to determine your self worth or to build your self esteem without realizing that you’re doing it”

How can we stop?

And that leads us to our third question: if there isn’t a benefit to comparing ourselves to others, how can we stop

I believe the first step to making a change is becoming aware that a change needs to be made.  A person might be feeling all the feelings associated with social comparison and not know why he or she is feeling that way.  It is important to understand that trying to determine our self worth or boost our self worth and self esteem by comparing ourselves with others, does not work.   Instead, it leads to very negative feelings, dissatisfaction, low self worth, anxiety, and increased depression.  Nothing good comes from it.

Limit opportunities for social comparison 

The next step is to limit the opportunities for social comparison.  Two of the most common means for social comparison are obsession with celebrity culture and spending a lot of time on social-media. Limiting social comparison is especially important for those struggling with low self esteem or depression.  The link between social media and depression has been talked about for years, and in 2018 a study conducted by psychologist Melissa G. Hunt at the University of Pennsylvania proved that social media causes decreased feelings of well being and increases feelings of loneliness and depression.   

We can reduce opportunities for unrealistic social comparison by limiting the amount of time on social media and letting go of celebrity culture obsession.  It may be challenging for those who currently spend hours turning to those things out of habit.  

Social media addiction

Many people struggle with social media addiction. I know of one young woman who was involved in a car accident, and to her the most frustrating thing about the situation was that her phone battery was dead.  She wasn’t concerned about her safety, because help was already on the way. What concerned her was that she was stuck with no phone and no computer and she had no access to social media.  She was afraid that she might be missing out on the latest stories. She was more upset about being separated from social media than she was about the accident.

I also know of young mothers who don’t have time for their kids because they are glued to social media.  It is difficult to change a habit or overcome an addiction, but it’s not impossible. Some people limit the amount of time they spend on social media each day by giving themselves a specific amount of time like 10 minutes or 30 minutes and when the time runs out, they turn it off.  Some people find that giving up social media altogether is easier for them than trying to limit the amount of time spent.

Some people find that turning to TedTalks or podcasts are great ways to distract themselves away from social media, this has the added benefit of helping a person feel uplifted and motivated rather than the feelings of jealousy and dissatisfaction that often result from social media. 

Add a little perspective

Another tip to help overcome the temptation of comparison is to add a little perspective.  We see people who appear to be perfect, especially in the media or on social media where people can carefully select what they want to be seen.  In these situations it is helpful to remember that what we’re seeing is not the whole story. People’s digital selves are not their real selves even if they include the word “authentic” or hashtag their photos with #nofilter.  Social media is the part of people that they want us to see. Remember, social media is people’s ‘highlights reel,’ they also have a ‘behind the scenes’ reel too, just like you do. We often compare their strengths with our weaknesses, this is like comparing our ‘behind the scenes’ reel with their ‘highlights’ reel.  It’s simply not fair.   

Furthermore, when looking at those beautiful photos that we see in magazines, we need to understand that the media uses a variety of deceptive techniques to create artificial beauty.  They use professionals to help with hairstyles, makeup, and wardrobe, but that’s not all, they also use duct tape and other tricks to lift and shape the body and then use lighting techniques to highlight the best features and diminish flaws, but even that is not enough.  After the photo is taken, it is modified electronically to airbrush and perfect the face and body. It might look good, but it isn’t real. Actress Julianne Moore says, “ There is so much illusion in photographs and movies. I know an actress friend of mine who was looking at a photo in a magazine and said, ‘Why don’t I look like that?’ – and then she realized it was a picture of herself.” 

So even the people who look like that, don’t really look like that.  It is comparing against an illusion.  

Find other methods to boost self-esteem

My next suggestion is to find a different and better method to boost self-esteem.  Comparing does not help build self esteem, it decreases self esteem. Self-esteem comes from the inside, it doesn’t come from the outside.  It isn’t about them, it’s about us. To improve self-esteem, we work on learning to love and accept ourselves.  

Please visit these Hope for Healing articles for healthier methods to build self-esteem.

Here are some podcasts that may also be helpful in your journey.  Subscribe  to Linda’s Corner for more.

Here are some videos that may help you on your journey. Subscribe to our youtube channel for more. 


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