Comparison: A necessary evil?

The subject of psychology to me, has always been one of equal parts admiration and exasperation. The admiration stems from my appreciation of the analysis and thought dedicated to the intricacies of the human condition, and my exasperation is in response to the conclusions put forth by said analysis. Rarely it seems, can we give a definitive answer in regard to any question posed about human psychology that encompasses a majority of humans, if not all. Human beings are just such diverse, emotional, rational agents that we could never make a broad, sweeping claim about human psychology that wouldn’t have an exception to the rule. This is not to say I do not appreciate the subject, merely an observation of mine that I’m sure others can relate to. For example, in this article, the finding is that competition across social category fault lines is generally higher than that of it within social category fault lines. However, with an introduction of the individual factor of similarity in the example of the one male and one female ‘employee of the month’, competition will likely be fierce within genders, despite the previous assumption about fault lines. The authors also conclude in this example that either factor can dominate depending on the incentive structure, showing the complexity of psychology when accounting for all of the nuances that shape our social processes. Another example involves three rivals tied at a certain rank. In this, the authors question which factor has greater impact, the N number of competitors, or the proximity to a standard? Even if you could decisively claim that one plays a more crucial role, to what degree? Certainly, psychology will always have this point of frustration for me.


Despite that, the findings of the authors in this article are no doubt eye-opening in the sense that while many of these concepts are things that have implicitly been the factor behind our decisions, we may not have consciously acknowledged them before. The observation of individual and situational factors in social comparison and how they might interact with one another is most certainly worth exploring. It may provoke readers to be more mindful of what drives their social processes, and to think carefully about why we do the things we do. What values do we internalise? What do we eschew? For my part, one of the things I value is authenticity. And to me, comparison is by nature, disingenuous. What I mean by this is in the act of comparing the self to others, it may affect the way one views oneself, and influence their decisions to change. I feel like this occurs when someone is not sufficiently true to themselves or have not explored enough in depth to know what kind of person they are. I don’t however, claim to be sure of my own views either. I am certainly guilty of comparing in a negative manner, both in the past and now. One example is, as a kid, if I got a bad grade, I would immediately console myself thinking, ‘At least I didn’t do as bad as person A’. Which is pretty terrible for two reasons: I wasn’t acknowledging why I got a bad grade(e.g. laziness or lack of effort), and it also put down the person I was comparing with. In a similar vein of thought from the article, if a person feels less inclined to do well on the SAT because there are a higher number of competitors in that same room than another, are they really doing it for themselves at that point? In this sense, comparison can really be quite a toxic social process in our everyday lives.


Naturally, comparison can most definitely lead to positive effects as well. It can be used to pursue goals, elevate one’s success, become a better person, etc. From the article, we can see that comparison can form communities along a social category fault line, identify like-minded people using similarity, or struggle for progress through proximity to a standard. My view would be that the goal is to use comparison in such a way that you can improve yourself, without affecting others directly in a negative manner. Of course, this is pretty much impossible in zero-sum game scenarios, which is why I believe negative forms of comparison to be a necessary evil in our current society. I don’t however, believe comparison is an unavoidable aspect of the human condition. In Molina’s example of hunter-gatherer societies, they essentially avoid all forms of competition. While I cannot say they do not compare at all in such communities, it would certainly be to a degree much, much less than what we observe in today’s society. This would suggest that comparison is something that has been ingrained from societal norms, rather than human nature. Knowing this, we shouldn’t attempt to completely abolish comparison, but figure out the best way to incorporate it in our lives in a positive manner. I appreciate alicewang0108’s message in their blog post about how everyone’s lives are different, and nobody’s on the same track. Your main competitor should be yourself, working to be better than your past self.


Image source: by Jim Davis


  1. I found your point of view on Garcia’s article really interesting and thought-provoking. You said that your point of view would be that the goal is to use comparison in such a way that you can improve yourself, without affecting others directly in a negative manner. I disagree with that as don’t you think that as a society we have come to this understanding that competition and comparison are about putting one down negatively. I believe that we can’t have a comparison without affecting others negatively, maybe not directly but I would say it’s inevitable. For example, when a student compares his work with another on WordPress, I think that for them to feel some sort of validation they need to negatively view the other person’s work in order to feel better.


  2. Sorry for the late reply. I definitely understand where you’re coming from. The idea that we require comparison as a way of recognising the standard, to know where we stand in relation to our peers. While I agree that negatively affecting others is most likely inevitable under our current societal norms, I do think that we can mitigate that by shifting our perspective. Instead of dwelling on those who so called ‘fall’ below our standard, perhaps we could instead try to focus on those who ‘rise’ above our standard. We can reframe it as working to improve yourself and strive towards the quality of work by others who ‘rise’ above the standard, instead of feeling self-assured or validated that your own quality of work is at least higher than those who ‘fall’ below the standard. I think in this way, we would create a more wholesome and healthy form of social comparison and progress.


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