This is the second post in our relationship series on managing relationship conflict. In this post, we will be discussing one type of behavior that can significantly strain the quality of relationships—COMPARING. By this, we mean comparing yourself to others in a way that demeans your own relationships and personal qualities.
Today, I’m going to explore what science has to say about comparing--different types of comparing, situations that trigger it, pros and cons--and healthier behaviors we can do instead when we find ourselves comparing.
Comparing in social situations.
Have you ever wondered how someone you know got engaged so much sooner after only dating someone for a few months, when you’ve been in a much longer relationship? Or how some people seem to make friends so much more easily than you?
Social psychologists have long studied why people compare themselves with one another, and many theories have been developed stemming from Leon Festinger’s original social comparison theory. His theory proposed that human beings engage in social comparisons due to an innate drive to obtain accurate information about themselves and their social world. Most of our everyday comparisons that hurt our self-esteem are situations in which we have been outperformed. Research shows that we will feel a greater threat to our self-esteem the closer we feel to the person being compared, the more relevant the task is to our self-concept, and the more uncertain we feel about our abilities in that particular domain.
So how do we recover from the pain of these types of social comparisons? Some work has found that making downward comparisons (comparing with those who are less capable) can help recover self-esteem when the comparison makes you look bad, but this doesn’t seem to be a particularly healthy long-term strategy if you ask me, and only appears to work for people who have low self-esteem. Another approach to protect our self-esteem may be to slightly modify how important the specific task is to our self-concept, or the image that we have of ourselves.
Comparing in the workplace and performance situations.
Have you ever found yourself asking why your peer coworker got praise for something but you didn’t? Or how they came up with a great idea that you hadn’t thought about?
Some studies on social comparisons have shown that it’s not always bad! Some types of comparing can actually enhance your performance-- and these studies stem from a theory that social comparisons can have an adaptive function for evaluating ourselves accurately in order to motivate self-enhancement.
This includes comparing with others on wealth, intelligence, attractiveness, job, job status, and the list goes on. If you use social media to compare, this can become an all-encompassing downward spiral that includes comparing to another person’s entire life and lifestyle! I think the best example of this kind of comparing is evaluating how you hold up against people who started out from the same place as you and who seem to have gotten further in their lives (re: high school)!
The dangers of this go back to previous research on the effects of comparing on self-esteem. It’s also important to keep in mind that the information you have about others may be biased; they may come through biased sources. All social media is biased—posts on social media exclusively offer information that presents people in the best possible light, thus generating an unbalanced view of their deficiencies.
One of our readers commented on this idea of getting unstuck and moving forward in a way that keeps up with the pace of others. The only person who really knows if you are capable of doing better is yourself. Perhaps the more important questions to ask are whether comparing with others is helpful in motivating us to action, whether it’s based on an accurate standard, and whether it’s based on a helpful standard (should we actually use that standard to judge ourselves?).
How much of the time have you compared with others’, those aspects of your appearance that you dislike the most in yourself? Why do we do this?
For people with body image dissatisfaction and body dysmorphic concerns, comparing and scrutinizing others’ appearance is done to alleviate concerns about one’s own perceived appearance flaws in the short-term, but in the long-term only reinforces the belief that one is unattractive. Eye tracking studies have found that people with body dysmorphic concerns look at the specific features of others’ faces that they dislike in themselves, at the exclusion of the holistic view. Mirror checking is also a form of comparing that reinforces these problematic beliefs by making people extremely attuned to even minor changes in their appearance.
If you find yourself comparing at all, I would encourage you to look at the overall big picture, and try to take in ALL aspects of others’ appearance rather than the detailed aspects you might automatically focus on.
Comparing and jealousy.
Jealousy refers to a perceived threat to something that could be taken away. Those who are competitive by nature may be more inclined to compare with others, and competitiveness also correlates with jealousy.
There have been some gender differences found in jealousy, showing that women tend to be more jealous of attractiveness, whereas men tend to be more jealous of dominance indicators, such as wealth and status. However, more recent evidence suggests that although more men than women reported sexual infidelity as more distressing than emotional infidelity, those with secure attachment styles (including men) actually reported emotional infidelity as more distressing than sexual infidelity.
Comparing in contexts that only serve to increase jealousy is not a helpful coping strategy. A better approach to romantic jealousy may be to practice self-reliance and boosting one’s confidence in being able to survive being out of the relationship.
 Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7, 117-140.
 Lockwood, P. (2002). Could it happen to you? Predicting the impact of downward comparisons on the self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 343-358.
 Pilkington, C. J., & Smith, K. A. (2000). Self-evaluation maintenance in a larger social context. British Journal of Social Psychology, 39, 213-27.
 Wood, J. V. (1989). Theory and research concerning social comparisons of personal attributes. Psychological Bulletin, 106, 231–248.
 Greenberg, J. L., Reuman, L., Hartmann, A. S., Kasarskis, I., & Wilhelm, S. (2014). Visual hot spots: an eye tracking study of attention bias in body dysmorphic disorder. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 57, 125–132.
Grocholewski, A., Kliem, S., & Heinrichs, N. (2012). Selective attention to imagined facial ugliness is specific to body dysmorphic disorder. Body Image, 9, 261–269.
 Levy, K. N., & Kelly, K. M. (2010). Sex differences in jealousy: A contribution from attachment theory. Psychological Science, 21, 168-173.
By Angela Fang, Ph.D. - Expert Psychologist