27 September 2023

People like us: When it makes sense to compare yourself with others

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Art Markman* says we often measure our self-worth against our friends and co-workers and, while they can help us excel, social comparisons can also be destructive.

Image: Frances Coch

About a year ago, I joined a rowing gym that’s much like spin — only you’re pulling oars.

The classes are punishing.

One of the nice things, besides the loud music, is that I often sit next to someone around my age and engage in some friendly competition.

But I’m a little nervous, because I was convinced to sign up for a citywide race on rowing machines.

Many of my competitors have been rowing for decades.

I think I’m going to get smoked by guys who are bigger and in much better shape.

So, my plan is to just focus on my own performance and ignore the hubbub around me.

As I was thinking about all this, it occurred to me that this situation nicely encapsulates a lot of the ways we use social comparisons to motivate ourselves throughout life.

Social comparison is pretty much what it sounds like — measuring yourself by the success (or shortcomings) of others.

There are two kinds of social comparisons.

Upward comparisons are those where you line yourself up alongside someone better off.

Those can make you feel dissatisfied.

Downward ones are made when you compare yourself to someone worse off, and while they may make you feel better about your status, they may also elicit feelings of pity.

If upward social comparisons make you dissatisfied, they can be a bad thing to engage in.

But with the right attitude, they can actually be helpful.

Dissatisfaction creates energy, and that energy can be harnessed for the better.

That is, if there is an unimpeded path to doing so.

That means that you have to have some ability to control your own destiny rather than being buffeted about by external forces.

It also means that you have to believe that if you put in the effort, it will successfully reduce (or eliminate) the difference between you and that other person.

When you compare yourself to a well-matched peer at work, or someone on social media, their efforts and successes are ones that can spur you to excel.

But be careful: Social comparisons can also prove demotivating.

You can always find someone more successful, at a younger age, doing something you wish you could do.

If you can’t see a way to match the same level of success, it can actually lead you to not even go for something you can achieve.

When the most available upward social comparisons are going to be demotivating, shift your focus inward.

By focusing on being better than who you are — next week, next month, or next year — you can push yourself to advance.

To make these internal comparisons succeed, though, you have to be specific.

It is not enough just to say generically, “I want to be better next year than I was this year.”

You have to focus specifically on how you want to be better and then take actions that will lead you to improve.

When you use these internal comparisons, it is helpful to have a written record of your past performance so you have a specific goal to attain.

Without something in writing, it is easy to forget what you actually did in the past.

Finally, what about downward social comparisons?

They aren’t that helpful if you’re trying to motivate yourself to new heights.

However, they can have two benefits.

First, on those days when you are feeling tapped out, you’ll recognise that there are other people worse off than you.

That can help you refocus on your progress.

Second, as you move forward in your career, you may want to find opportunities to mentor others.

Finding people who are striving to succeed, but haven’t made it yet, may remind you of your own journey earlier in your career.

And lending that helping hand can be just as motivating.

* Art Markman is a Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas and Founding Director of the Program in the Human Dimensions of Organisations.

This article first appeared at www.fastcompany.com.

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