Social Comparisons: How They Affect Us

May 23, 2019
Being compared to others can be a source of real frustration and anxiety. For this reason, it's important to know how to use social comparisons in a positive way.

We constantly compare ourselves to the people around us, those in our social networks, public figures, and even fictional characters. The general opinion seems to be that social comparisons tend to be negative, and should be avoided at all costs.

But what if we told you that social comparisons are part of our character as human beings?

Do we need to compare ourselves to others?

Leon Festinger is the creator of the theory of social comparison and cognitive dissonance. He postulates that people need to evaluate their own opinions and abilities. In other words, people need to know they’re consistent, and that their choices and thoughts are valid.

According to the psychologist Joel Feliu, people started comparing themselves to others in order to obtain a sense of certainty, since they had no other way of confirming the validity of their own opinions and skills.

Social Comparisons: How They Affect Us

Even when things are relatively clear, we often tend to place our trust in the opinions of others. In other words, we trust their opinions more than our own in order to know what to do, say or think.

However, Feliu points out that these comparisons aren’t made at random. Rather, we use people we consider to be similar to ourselves. Therefore, once we determine that there is a similarity with another person, we rely on them more to evaluate our opinions and abilities.

All this reflection leads to the concept of group uniformity. The fact that we need reliable opinions from those we feel are similar to us translates into a desire for group uniformity. That is to say that we want to be more like others and others to be more like us.

Cognitive dissonance

But what happens when our attitudes and opinions don’t match those of people we consider similar to ourselves? According to Festinger, when social comparisons lead to discrepancies, cognitive dissonance occurs.

This dissonance creates psychological distress, and can lead to us making changes in our decisions, opinions, attitudes and, ultimately, our cognitive systems.

Social comparisons: how harmful are they?

Now that we know that social comparisons are part of human nature, an important question remains. How does comparing ourselves to others affect us?

Comparing ourselves to others will affect us differently depending on the meaning we give to the comparison. The way in which we value our own situations in relation to those of other people can seriously affect our self-esteem and have an adverse effect on our sense of autonomy.

On the other hand, we must understand that we all have unique life situations as the result of difficult experiences. In other words, we need to remember that the events leading up to your current state and that of another person are very different. Making associations between your life and another’s situation can cause significant harm to your sense of self-worth.

Meanwhile, we should remember the saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Keep in mind that appearances can be deceiving. Doctor and wellness expert Susan Biali points out the important fact that others’ “exteriors” cannot be compared to our “interiors.”

With the emergence of social networks, it’s very common to compare our lives with others by viewing their Facebook and Instagram profiles. This is despite the fact that all we have to go on is photos.

Social comparisons as inspiration

We are all unique and have our own set of circumstances. If we constantly compare ourselves to others, we will be assuming certain demands that are foreign to our experience. However, there is a healthy way to use social comparisons: as inspiration.

Social Comparisons: How They Affect Us

Observing how others make progress and achieve their dreams while you still have a lot of work to do can be truly frustrating. It can also produce considerable anxiety. When you compare yourself to others, turn that frustration and envy of not having what they have into motivation.

In other words, comparing yourself to others should always focus on self-improvement. Observe those people from another perspective, as a model or goal to help you achieve your goals. Analyze what they did to get what they have now and motivate yourself by saying, “If they can, so can I.”

 

  • Biali, S. (2010). Live a live you love: seven steps to a healthier, happier, more passionate you. Beaufort Books.
  • Festinger, L. (1975). Teoría de la disonancia cognoscitiva. Instituto de Estudios Políticos. España
  • Ibáñez, T., Botella, M., Domènech, M., Feliu, J., Martínez, L.M., Pallí, C., Pujal, M. y Tirado, F.J. (2004). Introducción a la psicología social. Editorial UOC. España: Barcelona.