How often do you scroll through social media? As each image emerges before being flicked off your screen again, your brain is devouring concentrated capsules of information about the lives of others. Someone is showcasing their brand-spanking new Mercedes-Benz. Someone else is sipping a daiquiri while bronzing at a secluded, ivory beach in Lanzarote. “Good for them!”, you might think. “I wish that were me…” is another potential thought. Either way, there’s something going on: we’re unconsciously weighing up our own experiences with those of others. We compare. We then evaluate ourselves in response. This is what’s known in psychology as social comparison.
Social media is one of the most well-documented breeding grounds for social comparison. In fact, some studies suggest that these comparisons account for up to 10% of our total thoughts. Some can be favourable, where we end up feeling good about ourselves after comparing with another person, or unfavourable, where we end up feeling worse. We may also compare against those who are better-off than us or worse-off than we are.
Unfortunately, we humans are hard on ourselves a lot of the time. This means we mostly compare against those we think are better off than us when, in reality, they may not be. More often than not, we’re then left with a bitter aftertaste. This is often the case on social media, where people tend to portray an idealised (or even glorified) representation of their lives. But this can also happen at work; have you ever thought that your colleague did a better job than you, only to later find out that they thought you did the better work?
Social comparisons are mostly an unconscious process. We’re so used to this method of self-evaluation that it’s deeply ingrained in our psychology. We do, however, have more control over how we respond to social comparisons. For some of us, our automatic reaction may be to feel threatened by the success of others and suffer in self-inflicted resentment and envy. As you might expect, this does us no good.
Instead, let’s harness the power of social comparisons. Recognise your reaction and ask yourself if it’s really justified. Is the success of someone else truly a threat? We can respond by taking initiative to improve ourselves instead of wallowing in envy. By seeing others succeed, we can rebound by generating self-encouragement and self-motivation. Observing someone else conquer challenges can also provide the opportunity for us to learn and develop. Put simply, if we happen across another image of someone enjoying a cocktail on an exotic beach, let’s not wish for endless rain and storms to dampen their holiday. Instead, let’s start saving up and checking up hotspots for our next exotic getaway. We could even ask our cocktail-sipping holiday-goer for advice!
So, social comparisons are unavoidable, but they needn’t be a trigger for ill-feeling. Just try to recognise them when they occur, before responding in a positive and considered manner.