Social comparison is a relentless and often troubling drive within you. Self awareness can help you to still the emotional turmoil set off by this incessant subconscious process. Social comparison works both ways. It enables you to fit into the social hierarchy of your community. It enables you to improve your performance through subconscious imitation of the people you admire. Nature even limits the hidden process to a comparison among your equals, creating a realistic potential for improvement.
On the other hand, social comparison triggers a feeling of helplessness and despair about your failure to achieve comparable levels. It generates anger towards your superiors. When you compare yourself with lower levels of society, it initiates the emotions of gratitude and guilt. An acceptance that you are unique, that the wealth, talents and skills of people will always vary can help to still negative feelings related to social comparison. While the subconscious process will work to improve yourself, an awareness of its manipulative workings can help to still your emotional turmoil.
The Theory The Social Comparison Theory was initially proposed by social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954. The theory proposes that individuals have an internal drive to evaluate their own opinions and desires by comparing themselves to others. People look at outside images to evaluate their own views and abilities. These images are sought to be realistic and achievable. The drive to compare reduces as the comparison image diverges from their images of their own views and abilities. People tend to move into groups of similar opinions and abilities, and they move out of groups that fail to satisfy their comparison drive. The theory suggests that while people do improve their abilities through comparison, they do not change their views significantly through the same process.
The Herd Instinct The social comparison drive became a survival need, when grazing animals grouped together to protect themselves. The groups moved and acted together, without any overall plan. Unlike an army detachment, which follows an overall plan, individual emotional controls achieve cooperative behavior in herds. Social comparison helped herds to imitate the behavior of equals to choose cooperative patterns of behavior. These tendencies create a status structure of higher and lower groups. A dominance hierarchy is established, with leaders and followers. Each group compare themselves within their own group. At the watering hole, the leader drinks first. Others instinctively follow. Social comparison enabled individual assessments of supportive group behavior.
A Real Time Process Without our awareness, our nervous system monitors the behavior of people all around us. If we step into an elevator, our muscles stiffen so as to avoid encroaching into the private territories of others. The formal atmosphere of a museum quiets our conversation. If someone stops in the middle of the street to look up, others will also look up. If someone you respect bows to authority, you are more likely to follow suit. We tend to compare and imitate. We sense their tension and imitate their focus of attention. All this is done without much conscious awareness. Social comparison is a ceaseless part of our subconscious mental processes.
Emotions Control Behavior Social comparison is a pattern recognition process, which compares the behavior and achievements of others to assess one's own position in the social group. A person understands his rank in the hierarchy, measured in terms of wealth, official status, or physical prowess. When people are generally comparable, such as in a school yard, behavior patterns decide the hierarchy. Leaders tend to be aggressive, to push back if pressed and to intrude into other's spaces. Anger establishes dominance. Fear subdues the follower. Shame and guilt prevent actions, which are injurious to the herd. The generated emotions continually decide the social structure.
The Emotional Mechanism Pattern recognition of comparative behavior triggers emotional control signals, which modify behavior within milliseconds. Within the blink of an eye, your body prepares for an infinite range of variations of the fight, or flight response. Fear, or anger triggers immediate responses. Adrenalin increases. Heart beats increase to improve blood supply. Blood pressure rises and breathing changes. Acidity increases in the stomach. The excretory system prepares to clear toxin. Without your conscious awareness, the comparison process makes you feel fear, guilt, shame, or despair about your comparative stance. These are subtle bodily responses, which manipulate your behavior and disturb your peace of mind.
Your Helpless Role Hidden social comparison triggers emotional responses. Your conscious awareness of the generated ill feelings follows the process. The experiments of Benjamin Libet uncovered your helpless role in this powerful pattern recognition routine. He studied subjects who voluntarily pressed a button, while noting the position of a dot on a computer screen, which shifted its position every 43 milliseconds. The noted moment of depressing the button was the moment of conscious awareness of the decision of the subjects to press the button. Each time, Libet also timed the beginning of motor neuron activity in the brains of his subjects. He discovered that awareness occurred 350 milliseconds AFTER the beginning of motor activity. Emotions take control of your mind before your awareness of how, or why it all happened.
Effective Mind Control Your mind processes knowledge faster than your conscious thoughts. Subconscious social comparison may trigger negative emotions like anger, fear, shame, or guilt, or despair. When you feed realistic data to the system you can prevent such emotions from being triggered. Even if bad feelings are triggered, you can quiet them by paying conscious attention to them.
Fortunately, both these actions are within your conscious control. In its intuitive wisdom, a focus of attention on reasonable data will cause your mind to absorb it and to respond reasonably. It will also subdue negative emotions, if you consciously observe them from a distance. You can prevent the emotion from being triggered by changing your attitudes through new knowledge. You can still those emotions by becoming conscious of them when they are triggered.
Triggers Envy The social comparison drive evaluates comparisons with perceived equals on the emotional values of material possessions and social relationships. The high appeal of a neighbor's gleaming new car enhances the pain of a missed loan installment on one's own battered jalopy. One's inability to match the achievements of others switches to anger over the unfairness of it all. Anger redirects to the nearest victim. Subconscious social comparison triggers destructive envy, which harms people and makes them wish ill upon their neighbors.
Envy Is Unrealistic Envy is founded on a wrong view of fairness. A natural sense of fairness makes parents treat their children equally. Our political systems stand for equality. But, life is neither ideal, nor fair. There will always be other people with more talents, more wealth, or more health. Neither is fairness a workable social concept. The brilliant insights of a few stand behind great achievements of man. The inventor of the wheel alone contributed lifetimes of effort to all of humanity. History shows that depriving talented people in the name of fairness leads only to the proven poverty of the socialist systems. Even if it is not fair, society can thrive only if it rewards those who contribute more. Once this reality of the world around us seeps in, envy has no place.
Guilt & Shame The social comparison drive reduces conflicts in groups. A person, who feels no guilt is likely to harm others and to harm the fabric of society. The so called mirror neuron network enables us to sense the emotional responses of others concerning our errors and omissions. We tend to feel the weight of their contempt or scorn as painful emotions. Eisenberger's research at UCLA confirms activity in the neural pain circuits, when a person suffers social rejection. The system triggered the pain of guilt and shame by comparing selfish behavior with the the moral code of the group. Guilt causes a person to express regret and so, he is likely to be forgiven. This reduces the chances of retaliation and consequent conflict. The social comparison drive discourages unsocial actions and compels members to act for group benefit.
Be Aware Of The Ill Effects Of Comparison The hidden process of social comparison triggers the painful processes of envy. When the achievements of others cause you discomfort, become aware of the negative emotion. Should you suffer the emotions of an animal past? Is the pain of envy justified? Do you not have advantages, which the other lacks? If you fail in one area, can you not discover equally satisfying, but achievable goals elsewhere? Can you not cherish the many advantages that you have in life? Accepting the reality of your own failures will still envy and make you feel a better person. The success of your neighbor will then only inspire you to do better in your own life.
The Benefits Are Invisible Millions of buying decisions in the market place are triggered through the social comparison process. Fashions change, when role models decide to wear their skirts long, or short. Word of mouth advertising is an acceptance of advantages of a product, as perceived by a friend or neighbor. The gestures of film stars are copied by millions of fans. The mirror neuron network may have roles to play in this process, where motor regions imitate the responses of goal directed actions of another person. Evidently, we will imitate the actions of someone we admire, because our neural network subconsciously decides that an improvement in performance is desirable! We can leave it to nature to subconsciously improve our performance through social comparison!