How is capitalism related to social comparison?

The article ‘The Psychology of Competition’ written by Stephen M. Garcia, Avishalom Tor and Tyrone M. Schiff introduces the concept of social comparison and explains how it influences competitiveness. Throughout the paper, the writers use a “scientific method” to prove their points and demonstrate their theory. What caught my attention the most was how it is possible to fit capitalism in this social comparison system, so that is what I am going to focus on this reading response.

The first reaction that I had while reading the text was a surprise about the way that psychology studies behaviours. As Alice Wang argues on her post, I was also expecting psychology to be closer to the humanity area and understand feelings and conducts as involuntary and human actions, but the reality is the complete opposite. Psychologists use a scientific method with different kinds of researches and experiments, control groups, an extensive amount of data and comparative analysis.

The whole article is clearly divided by paragraphs, with each one proposing to talk about a specific point related to individual or situational factors. At the end of the writing piece, the authors present how their model offers new forms of interpretation for many study fields, such as personality, education, economics, business, political science and law. By doing this move, the writers expanded the discourse community, since the topic now is related to all these other areas.

When I compare this article to previous ones that I have read, Werron’s ‘Why do we believe in competition’ comes to my mind. In this sociological analysis of competition, Dr Werron says that the new competition is based on the consumers’ expectations, and since in many cases they are unknowable, producers observe each other to seek stability. When Werron uses this argument, he defines that comparing ourselves to others is the prevalent behaviour in nowadays competition’s form, a similar conclusion to Stephen M. Garcia and his partners, who argue that competition is based in social comparison.

After this brief review of my expectations about psychology, the discourse community and the relation with the Tobias Werron’s article, this reading response will explain how capitalism is related to social comparison and competitiveness.

Without a doubt, competition is ubiquitous in our lives, but why is that? While some people may argue that it is caused by the industrial revolution and capitalism, I do not think that is the case, because how J.L Molina shows in his article called ‘Cooperation and competition in a social anthropology’, competition was already present in tribal societies as a way to acquire prestige and consequently wealth. Although I do not think that competition started to appear with capitalism, I consider this theory to have some interesting and useful points. I would say that the emergence of capitalism did not create competition, but actually magnified his importance and areas of influence.

Since the capitalism format proposes an incentive system that rewards those that work harder or in a smarter way, we can consider capitalism as an incentive structure. The incentive structure is defined by Stephen M. Garcia as one of the situational factors (factors on the social comparison landscape that affects all actors) and in my opinion, the most important one. The authors describe the ‘incentive structures’ as a “variety of factors associated with the structure of the specific competition, including the direct incentives it offers actors to engage in comparison, influence the level of comparison concerns and thus competitiveness”. As an example of a more specific incentive structure, they talk about how “higher expected values (Cole, Bergin, & Whittaker, 2008) can increase comparison concerns and competitiveness.” Even though we have some more specific structures examples -another one would be a zero-sum game- I consider capitalism as a larger one, that affects all the others situational cases.

Capitalism creates an environment where you are always wanting to have more or be better. At work, we compete for a promotion, a higher salary or to win a race to patent a new invention; in the social sphere we want to have more friends, go to more parties or have a better body; at the personal life we always want the newest smartphone or travel to any famous place. While we receive all this information provided by the incentive structure(capitalism) we might not realize, but to know what is “more” or “better” we do a social comparison.

Psychology has been studying competition for decades but for sure one of the most important theories is relatively recent. The theory of social comparison shows the tendency of humans beings to make an evaluation of our-selfs comparing to others and it is divided into many individual and situational factors. The one focused here is the incentive structures and its most common form: capitalism. As it is shown at the final of Dr Garcia’s article, the idea of social comparison has impacts in basically all other areas such as education, political science, law and business, therefore understanding the relation between capitalism and social comparison is essential to understand the effects that it may cause through the whole society.



Werron, T. (2015) Why do we believe in competition? A historical-sociological view of competition as an institutionalized modern imaginary. Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory

Garcia, S. M., Tor, A. and Schiff, T. M. (2013) The Psychology of Competition: A Social Comparison Perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science 8: 634

Molina, J. L., Lubbers, M. J., Valenzuela-García, H. and  Gómez-Mestres, S. (2017) Cooperation and competition in social anthropology. Anthropology today vol 33 no 1

Cole, J. S., Bergin, D. A., & Whittaker, T. A. (2008). Predicting student achievement for low stakes tests with effort and task value. Contemporary Educational Psychology



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