Over ninety percent of adults in the United States have a social media account, spending on average two to four hours on online checking updates and likes1,2. It has also been estimated that in our lifetime, we will spend five years glued to our accounts. Without question, the tsunami of information we absorb from being voyeurs of other people’s lives is not always a good thing.
In the first part of this blog series, I spoke about how the reaction of others can influence how we feel about ourselves. In this blog we’ll look at Argyle’s second factor, which focuses on how comparing or ranking ourselves against others affects our feelings of self-worth.
In this blog you will learn:
- not all comparisons are equal
- not all comparisons have negative effects
- how knowing about comparisons can help make you a better person
The comparison trap
Around 2006, I went to go visit my girlfriend in Alberta, Canada. As soon as I landed, we made our way out to a ski town called Banff to meet up with some other friends of ours. When I got there, I realised I had forgotten half of my clothes and shoes, including my high heels. So on the first night out on the town, I didn’t have a lot to choose from and had to wear my basic jeans and flat shoes.
When I was back at the cabin, I felt fine in my grubs. But as soon as I walked into the nightclub, I felt about a foot tall and totally unattractive. All the other girls were dressed up and in heels. My confidence spilled out of me like water from a clogged toilet.
Why did this happen? The fact is, we feel different about ourselves because our feelings are no longer just based on how we feel, but rather they are based on a comparison between ourselves and others.
It’s like when it’s the Victoria Secret Fashion Show time of year. Before then, we’re all like, ‘Yeah, we’re looking pretty good’. Then you turn on the TV and—watch out—donuts are everywhere because you’re ranking yourself next to not one, but a whole catwalk of angels (and no, not models, angels).
So let’s look at some of the ways we compare ourselves with others, because not all comparisons are equal, therefore not all of our experiences will be equal.
First let’s talk about upward comparisons.
Our Victoria Secret’s Angels comparison is an example of an upward comparison. This happens when we compare ourselves with people who we believe are superior to us and have ‘better’ characteristics. Although this can be beneficial in that it can be inspirational, such as motivating us to start moving a bit more, eat more vegies or quit smoking, more often than not it leads us to feel depressed and unconfident.
With the current popularity of social networking sites, comparisons literally occur at our fingertips. For example, a 2014 study3 showed the more often college students were on Facebook, the lower their self-esteem. Furthermore, the more ‘upward comparisons’ they made, the lower they rated themselves. They also found that a woman’s mood was more negative after spending ten minutes browsing Facebook than after browsing a neutral website. And that’s not all. Some of the women reported more negativity towards their facial hair and skin-related characteristics after being on Facebook.
Take a moment to consider a time you have made an upward comparison. Make yourself a list, and then write down what you thought or how you felt as a result of that comparison. Who do you compare yourself to? Who inspires you to be a better version of yourself in contrast to those who make you feel worse? What is the difference between those two people?
Comparison behaviour: scrolling and seeing a beautiful photo of an influencer
Comparison thoughts/feelings: ‘I’m such a disappointment’
A downward comparison, on the other hand, occurs when we compare ourselves to people we think are inferior or have inferior characteristics. Although on the surface this may make us feel better, sometimes it can make us feel worse if we start thinking that our own situation can get worse4,5.
When I lived in Toronto, I often heard about a woman who took not only her own life, but also the life of her newborn by jumping in front of an approaching subway car. At the time (August 2000), postnatal depression was somewhat spoken about, but certainly not readily accepted, especially as a health disorder. Because of this stigma, many people looked down on this woman with shame and disgust, asking how a mother could do that to her child. But at the same time, many mothers also thought, ‘That could be me; what if I have to deal with postnatal depression?’
As you can see, although downward comparisons may occasionally make us superficially feel better about ourselves, that is not always the case.
Comparison behaviour: walking past a homeless person
Comparison thoughts/feelings: ‘They need to get their sh*t together’
Final summary and action points
Here are your key take-home messages:
It’s clear—we all compare, and I don’t think that’s ever going to change. Let’s review the two types of comparisons we learned about in this blog so far.
First, we learned about upward comparisons, when we look up to people who have characteristics that we believe are better than ours. While this type of comparison can motivate us to become a better version of ourselves, often it has a negative influence.
Second, we learned about downward comparisons, when we look down on people who we think have less desirable characteristics. While this might make us feel superficially better about ourselves, it can also lead us negative distortions.
You may be thinking, ‘Well that’s great, I now know I not only compare myself to awesome people, but I’m a horrible person because I compare myself to less fortunate people. Thanks a bunch!’
Well, here’s something to reflect on. By being more aware of comparisons, and specifically what kind of comparisons we’re making, we can get one step closer to appreciating who we are, rather than minimising who we are by comparing ourselves to others. And that’s not all—it can also help us be more compassionate and understanding of others.
Dr. Katherine x
p.s. If you enjoyed this blog, keep reading about Argyle’s third factor, social roles here: How to separate our job from our self-worth.
- Greenwood S, Perrin A, Duggan M. Pew Research Center. 2016. Nov 11, [2018-06-06]. Social Media Update 2016
- Duggan M, Ellison NB, Lampe C, Lenhart A, Madden M. Pew Research Center. 2015. Jan 09, [2018-06-06]. Frequency of Social Media Use
- Fardouly J, Diedrichs PC, Vartanian LR, Halliwell E. Social comparisons on social media: the impact of Facebook on young women’s body image concerns and mood. Body Image 2015;13:38-45. doi:10.1016/j.body- im.2014.12.002
- Vogel EA, Rose JP, Roberts LR, Eckles K. Social comparison, social media, and self-esteem. Psychol Pop Media Cult 2014;3(4):206-222. doi:10.1037/ ppm0000047
- Lockwood P, Kunda Z. Superstars and me: Predicting the impact of role models on the self. J Pers Soc Psychol 1997;73(1):91-103. doi:10.1037/0022- 35126.96.36.199