Why do we compare other people and things?

We permanently compare ourselves with others. High school class reunions, say, are wonderful opportunities to compare our success in any aspects of life from attractiveness via career and intelligence to marriage. The self-evaluation of our own attitudes, abilities and beliefs is based on comparison with others. This observation turned to be a celebrated theory of social psychology, called social comparison theory published by Leon Festinger in 1954. We don’t necessary like to see that we are overweighted compared to our former teammates, but generally (well, I wrote.. generally, so not always…) we have the social skills to control our envy feelings. The quote attributed to former U.S. president Teddy Roosevelt, ”Comparison is the thief of joy”, still we can’t stop to compare. Social psychologists still analyze our motivation to compare, and in their book “Friend and Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both” Adam Galinksy a social psychologist from Columbia University) and Maurice Schweitzer (from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania) write that ”when it comes to using social comparison to boost your own motivation, here is the key rule to keep in mind: Seek favorable comparisons if you want to feel happier, and seek unfavorable comparisons if you want to push yourself harder.” You may not be able to quit your social-comparison habit, but you can learn to make it work for you.”

Upward and downward comparison: person compares herself with other who are better/worse than her. There are from literature to pop culture, reflected also in the idiom ”Keeping up with the Joneses”. Here I add just one example from my own life:
”As a young adult I had two close friends, say John and Joe. In the seventies and early eighties people did not necessarily have a car in Budapest. If they had, most likely it was an ”Eastern” car, the most common was called Trabant produced in East Germany. It adopted two-stroke engines, what was very obsolete even that time. It was told that two people needs to its construction, one who cuts and one who glues, as it was from plastic. There was a story I remember: A donkey and a Trabant meet the Thuringian Forest. ”Hi car!” – greeted the donkey. ”Hi donkey! – answered the Trabant. ”It is not nice to call me donkey, if I addressed you as a car. You should have called me at least as a horse! I bought a six year old Trabant in my mid-thirties as my first car. It was not a status symbol, but it had four wheels.. John does not have any car (not only he could not afford it as a mathematician, but he had high diopter glasses, could not get driving licence). Textbooks suggest that the positive effects of any downward competition is gratitude what I certainly felt. While I don’t believe I felt the textbook’s negative effect (scorn), but I might have experienced some superiority. Joe, who worked for a French company soon got a ”Western” car, actually a Renault type. Did I felt any hope or inspiration, the positive effects of upward comparison of the textbooks? Probably my aspiration increased to afford (well, in a distant future a Western car. As concerns negative effects, I cannot deny I was envy. Was John unhappy or frustrated? Absolutely not! Relevance is a necessary condition of social comparison, and he was absolutely not interested in having cars! “

2 thoughts on “Why do we compare other people and things?”

  1. The joke about the donkey and Trabant is wonderful. It shows we compare not only ranks within a category but also ranks in different categories.
    …It is going to be a captivating book!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s