Your brain is a comparison engine. In every new situation, it automatically rifles through your memory of every other situation you’ve encountered in the past. It swiftly finds one or a few that are similar to the current scenario, then uses that information to figure out what to do next. Most of the time, you do this without you ever realizing it.
Sometimes this cognitive reflex works to your advantage, and sometimes it doesn’t. But since it’s always happening anyway, you might as well make it work for you more often than against you–at least as best you can. Here’s how.
Helpful And Less Helpful Comparisons
Say you walk into a conference room at a company you’ve never visited. Your brain immediately hops to it, rummaging through your memory to find other conference rooms you’ve been in, then helps you to figure out where to sit and how to behave in the meeting that’s getting underway. In a case like this, this is pretty handy.
Not only do you compare situations to each other, you also use your knowledge of other people to help you understand yourself. When you start a new job, you have to figure out how you should treat the other people in your office. Is this a workplace where the supervisors are just another part of the team, or do the people above you in the hierarchy require a little more deference than you’re used to? You figure that out by identifying coworkers whose jobs are similar to yours and observing their interactions: Are they joking around with their bosses, or do they clam up and get pretty formal once their managers show up?
But this process, which psychologists call “social comparison,” isn’t helpful to you across the board. Think about the variety of people you know. For every given dimension of yourself that you can think of, there are some people who seem better off than you and others who are worse off. Chances are you know people who make more money than you as well as people who make less money. Same goes for how witty, athletic, or competent other people are, relative to you yourself.
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When you compare yourself to someone better than you on a dimension, that’s called an “upward social comparison”; when you compare yourself to someone you consider worse off on a given dimension, it’s “a downward social comparison.” So while these comparisons can be useful (in both directions) for figuring out where you stand, they can make you miserable, too. If you’re always making upward social comparisons and find yourself lacking something, you may start feeling bad about how you measure up.
Of course, with a different mind-set, these upward comparisons might give you a sense of what’s possible in the world. You might think you’re quite well off, only to look around and find people with even more financial resources, and feel encouraged to know that you can still enrich yourself further. And it’s possible, too, that making downward social comparisons can make you feel good about being better off than others. But neither of these outcomes are especially motivating (and the latter doesn’t exactly reflect good ethics).
The Simple Way To Make More Productive Comparisons
After all, feeling miserable just because other people are smarter, richer, or better-looking than you doesn’t really drive you to do anything. And morals aside, consoling yourself with the fact that other people are worse off doesn’t spur you toward much productive action, either.
Instead, use your social comparisons in an aspirational way. Find people who are better than you along some dimension, and aspire to be like them. That is, don’t just contrast yourself with them and feel hopeful about getting to their level–this type of optimism is fine, but it’s inert.
What you really need to do is figure out how you’re similar to them already: What skills, characteristics, resources, and even shortcomings do you have in common? Then how can you leverage those strengths and account for those weaknesses or obstacles in a way that lets you succeed as much as they have? Model your approach on their experience, adapting as needed depending on what you don’t have in common.
Finally, when you encounter people who are worse than you along some dimension, don’t use that as a chance to gloat. Instead, ask yourself what you can do to help them improve. Finding opportunities to mentor others benefits you in two ways. First, you often feel better just by knowing you’ve helped someone else–there’s a genuine psychological upside to altruism. Second, you often learn a little something when you try to teach somebody else. It helps you to solidify your own skills.
In general, these make for much more practical advantages than other forms of social comparison can usually deliver. Actually getting better beats just feeling better any day of the week.