A couple of weeks ago, my Dad sent me an article about a mathematical concept I had never heard of, the Friendship Paradox.
Put simply, the paradox is that your friends, on average, have more friends than you do. And this is true for nearly everybody. How can this be?
Well, being a math nerd, I saw why fairly quickly. If we’re talking about averages, then the people with more friends are weighted more heavily than people with fewer friends. A more popular person is more likely to be your friend, so the sample is biased.
In other words, the Friendship Paradox just isn’t that important. That being said, many of us still have the impression that our friends are more popular than we are. Or that they are smarter. Or wealthier. And, interestingly enough, they are1.
This “paradox” is just one of the many factors that makes us unfairly compare ourselves to others. We employ numerous mental fallacies while making these comparisons, so it is important to educate yourself in advance to avoid overconfidence, poor self-esteem, and general unhappiness.
Healthy Social Comparisons
Let’s get this out of the way now. Comparing yourselves to other people is a necessary and largely unconscious process. If you’ve been told to “stop comparing yourself to others”, you have been misled. People who give this advice surely mean well, and it can also sound similar to other pieces of advice, such as “don’t rely on external validation”.
That is why it is important to draw certain distinctions now. Making comparisons is a purely internal process, and has nothing to do with seeking validation from others. It is a matter of validating (or invalidating) ourselves based on our relation to others. See the difference?
The next distinction is between healthy and unhealthy comparisons. The comparison itself isn’t the problem; it’s how you do it. In other words, there is a right way and a wrong way to compare yourself with others.
It’s instructive to consider how happy people tend to perform these social comparisons as opposed to unhappy people. Unhappy peoples’ affect and self-assessment are more heavily affected by comparisons with other people who are better or worse at a task than they are, whereas happy people tend to only be affected by people who are worse2. In other words, happy people use social comparison information more sparingly and selectively.
While it is easier said than done, this would suggest that (even though causation hasn’t been proven, it seems somewhat credible) you should avoid making comparisons with people who are better than you. Of course, it is more complicated than this. It depends on context; you can compare yourself with people better than you and feel inspired rather than inferior.
What is particularly worth noting from above is that to be happy, you shouldn’t be comparing yourself in a negative way to others while attaching your self-esteem to the comparison. This is fairly straightforward, but again, not so easy in practice.
The Role Of Social Comparisons
So we know that there is a healthy and an unhealthy way to compare ourselves with others, but why do we make these comparisons in the first place?
The short answer is that social comparisons are a primary means by which we evaluate ourselves. Since self-evaluation is a critical component of many areas of our lives, we have evolved to routinely compare ourselves to others in our daily lives.
In fact, our self-concept is very much tied to the way we look at people whom we have close relationships with3. The people that we are close with become a part of ourselves, both in content and structure. Then we take our self-concept and project it on to others, as if it were a template of sorts. This creates a kind of interrelated network of comparisons that help us understand ourselves and close others. Therefore, we begin to assume that these people will react to things or behave in ways similar to ourselves.
That leads into the next point: comparisons with others happen almost automatically in order to save cognitive resources. We tend to compare ourselves to our best friends, family members, colleagues, etc., because we have easier access to mental information about them. We end up “practicing” these comparisons over and over, until the process becomes completely routinized and automatic4. While this is more efficient, there is a big problem: these people aren’t necessarily the most appropriate people to be comparing ourselves to.
For example, you wouldn’t want to compare your athletic prowess with your grandma. Who would be a better choice? Perhaps your girlfriend is of a similar age, eats similar food, and has similar living conditions. But then she is of a different gender, and surely that has an effect. What about your nephew who has a similar athletic ability but a very different age? Clearly, choosing a useful target of comparison is not so straightforward.
What this all means for you is that, chances are, you spend a considerable amount of time comparing yourself to people whom you are close with. You view them as like yourself, and it allows you to make these comparisons automatically rather than devoting mental resources to it.
Of course, this leads to ineffective self-evaluations. If that’s the primary purpose (there are other purposes too) behind making these social comparisons, we have a serious problem here. Luckily, there are ways to get around this, but you should first become aware of the various biases we tend to have when comparing ourselves to others.
Pitfalls And Biases In Our Social Comparisons
If it wasn’t challenging enough already, there are numerous biases we have in the way we make social comparisons. Navigating through these successfully is important if you want your comparisons to have any use for you.
Keep in mind that different people have different biases, ranging from ones that massively overstate our own value and ones that drastically understate it. It’s likely that several of them are operating at the same time, possibly in conflicting directions, making the whole idea of social comparison quite confusing.
“But Mike! I know that many other people are biased, but I am very fair in how I judge others and how I relate to them.”
Sorry bro, but you’re not. People are incredibly stubborn about this; even after reading about how they could have been affected by a certain bias, the subjects still felt that their assessments were accurate5. I suggest reading the introduction and discussion at the bottom of that previous link; it is important to really internalize the fact that we are all biased, even if we think we aren”t.
If you did read that, you would see that even learning about the biases that I’m about to discuss may have little effect. That being said, I believe that through conscious effort you can become aware of some of the biases within yourself, or at least compensate for them to some degree.
Thinking that other people are more biased than you are is part of what we might call “self-enhancement strategies”. These strategies exist in large part to protect our ego. While the concepts discussed in this section aren’t all directly about social comparisons, the way we see ourselves is highly related to these comparisons, so they are still important.
We can divide self-enhancement (and, similarly, self-protection) strategies into four families6:
- Favorable Construals. These are strategies that involve interpreting the world and self-relevant events in flattering ways. This includes “positive illusions” such as unrealistically positive self-evaluations, an illusory perception of control, and unrealistic optimism7. These illusions aren’t necessarily unhealthy, by the way.
- Self-Affirming Reflections. This can include self-affirmation in response to threats. For example, if you are the first string saxophonist in the band, but a new person comes in who might challenge you, you might pump yourself up by searching for evidence that you are better than them. This is common in people with high self-esteem.
- Positivity Embracement. These strategies involve seeking out positive behavioral feedback and then capitalizing on it (cognitively) in interpersonal situations. This includes remembering positive feedback, presenting oneself in a self-serving way around others, and self-serving attributions of success (“It’s because of me that our team won!”).
- Defensiveness. These strategies involve reducing or avoiding negative feedback. An example of this would be self-handicapping, where you do things to get in the way of your own success in order to have an “excuse”. This is common in people with low self-esteem.
As you can see, many of these strategies require some type of self-enhancement bias. There is ample evidence that these biases exist.
Contrary to the “Friendship Paradox”, there is some evidence that we tend to think of ourselves as more popular than our friends8. This result suggests that we are more threatened by our friends’ success than that of strangers. I suspect that this is more true for some people than it is for others, and is probably mediated by self-esteem.
Another study found that subjects tended to find positive attributes more descriptive of themselves than others, and negative attributes were more descriptive of others than themselves9. Individuals with high self-esteem had a larger superiority bias, and tended to appraise themselves and their friends more favorably than others.
What exactly are these biases? Here are just a few of the ways they can manifest themselves (note how they fall into the strategies above):
- Self-serving Attribution Bias. Simply put, this is when you take credit for your successes but don’t take responsibility for your failures.
- Selective Memory. Sometimes people will selectively remember only their strengths rather than their weaknesses.
- Selective Acceptance. We may accept as fact ego-enhancing information without regards for its validity, or search for plausible theories to discredit criticism.
- Downward Social Comparisons. This is when you find someone inferior to you to compare yourself with. This is biased if they aren’t a reasonable person to compare yourself with for diagnostic purposes.
- The Better-Than-Average Effect. Almost everyone views themselves as higher than the 50th percentile in most areas, even though this is clearly impossible.
Quite clearly, we do not have accurate interpretations of ourselves. Protecting our egos in these ways, to a degree, is healthy. There is no evidence that having an accurate self-perception is better for our mental health than a slightly inflated one.
Even so, humility is important. Our self-enhancement strategies can keep us stuck (self-sabotaging behavior) or make us delusional, even if it is protecting our egos. Clearly there must be balance.
If you remember from above, happy people use social comparisons selectively when affirming their self-image. A good example of this would be to selectively reframe your thoughts in certain situations.
Far more dangerous, in my opinion, are inferiority biases.
Some researchers believe that the “better-than-average” biases above are not as prevalent as we think, and that the methodology that is used to assess these biases is, well, biased10. In these researchers’ opinion, many of those studies’ effects can be explained more accurately by the commonness of the activity. For behaviors that are more common, we tend to have a self-enhancement bias, but for more rare behaviors, we tend to exhibit an inferiority bias11.
An example would help illustrate this point. Because driving is such a common and routine behavior, most drivers think they are better than average at driving. On the other hand, most new drivers, to whom driving is not common yet, believe they are worse than the average new driver.
The danger of the inferiority bias is that it is the rarer events and behaviors that are usually more important to us. These are our goals and dreams, and we tend to underestimate our own likelihood of achieving them.
For example, if your goal is to write and create a tv show, you won’t feel as confident in your ability to succeed as is warranted. You’ll assume that other people are better writers, that it is unrealistic to get your script accepted, or whatever other limiting beliefs you come up with. In the end, this bias might result in you not even making the attempt.
Unlike self-enhancement biases, there are truly no redeeming factors to inferiority biases.
Principles Of Effective Social Comparisons For Self-Image
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this post. The idea of making an effective self-evaluation must seem nearly impossible by now.
It’s not. You can use social comparisons in an emotionally healthy way. Sure, there are a minefield of biases that can impact the accuracy of your assessments, but not all of these biases are bad. Awareness of their existence is great for educational purposes, but in most cases, at least in the short term, you won’t be able to remove these biases anyways.
Even if you don’t remove these biases, you can work with them strategically by keeping the following in mind as you make social comparisons.
Reading this post is a good first step. If you’ve made it this far, you are more knowledgeable about how we create our self-image through comparisons with others.
Now just remind yourself of it on a regular basis. You’ll likely make these comparisons subconsciously, but you can still recognize when you are doing it if you pay attention.
In what situations do you tend to compare yourself negatively to others? Positively? How do you respond to these comparisons, and how do you feel afterwards?
After you pay attention for a while, you may discover a rough pattern or “comparison profile”, if you will. Understanding your own behavior can go along way towards making it more constructive.
Do It Less
While some degree of social comparison is necessary, many people tend to do it too often. Notice when you are making these comparisons, and interrupt yourself.
If you are the kind of person who spends far too much time making these comparisons, I would strongly advise you to go back to the previous step and make a conscious effort to build up that “comparison profile”. Carry a notebook around with you and write some notes every time you make a comparison if you have to.
If certain types of comparisons make you less happy, focus on reducing those (obviously).
Compare With The Right People
If you want diagnostically useful comparisons, you need to compare yourself with people who are similar to you. Chances are, these aren’t the same people that you will instinctually use. This only matters if you want an accurate self-assessment.
On other occasions, accuracy is irrelevant. Consider the happy people referenced in the first study in this post. They put weight on comparisons with people who were inferior to themselves and largely ignored evidence from people who were superior. Self-enhancement can be a good thing.
Even if many of the comparisons you make are subconscious, you can consciously choose how you interpret them.
If you find yourself making a comparison with someone superior to you, you can choose to feel inspired by them rather than feel bad about yourself.
When you compare downward, let yourself feel good about being better than someone else (sounds mean, but whatever). However, consciously choose to not be attached to the comparison; you can simply use it for positive feedback.
I hope you’ve found this information useful and/or interesting. I think this is a particularly confusing and challenging aspect of personal development, because there are no clear cut solutions, and even the problem isn’t well defined.
I want to close on a slightly different thought. This post has been largely about comparing ourselves with others, but perhaps this misses the point entirely.
Ultimately, recognizing that we are all interconnected is fundamentally more important. What we see in other people is just a reflection of our own characteristics. The “end game” should be the realization that these comparisons aren’t very meaningful; they merely draw a distinction between us and another part of ourselves.
Once realized, it allows us to identify with people both inferior and superior to us in all different qualities, so we can enjoy others’ successes and empathize with their losses rather than egotistically letting it affect our self-esteem.