“Stop comparing yourself to everyone else.” It’s something mothers say all the time and yet it may be something we are hardwired to do.
In the 1950s, Leon Festinger formulated what he called “social comparison theory” — it is a theory predicated on the idea that we determine our own social and personal worth based on how we compare to others. In other words, in the absence of objective means of evaluation, we are constantly evaluating ourselves — our intelligence, our attractiveness, wealth, success etc. — in reference to those around us. According to the theory, people prefer to compare themselves with others who are similar to them. After all, what would be the point of a novice pianist comparing themselves to Beethoven?
There are upsides to social comparison. Students may feel more competent when they compare themselves to other students who didn’t do as well on a biology test. It can be a source of motivation—for example a runner may want to emulate the performance of fellow runner who beats them by a tenth of a second. It can make us more grateful for what we have and put disappointments and hardship in perspective. The thought, “Perhaps I don’t have it so bad, after all” often comes to mind when we think of others who are less fortunate.
That said, there are many downsides to social comparison. Research suggests that unhappy people make more frequent social comparisons than happy people and it makes them feel worse whereas happy people are less affected by it. The tendency to seek social comparison is correlated with low self-esteem and depression.
Comparing ourselves to others may be in our DNA but the context and comparisons have changed dramatically with social media. Rather than making comparisons to people who are in the same boat as we are, we now have a global landscape to draw from:
Today the web ensures that we are drowning in visuals: we’re no longer comparing ourselves to “local images” – our friends – instead we’re comparing ourselves to social-networked strangers, celebrities, and to Photoshopped images, of which we see around 5,000 a week.
Mass media is one of the commanding influences today for social comparison and studies show it takes a toll on our wellbeing:
Research has found that women who report frequently comparing themselves to other women, especially women in the media, are more likely to show signs of negative mood and body image disturbance (Schooler et al., 2004). Tiggemann and Mcgill (2004) found that women participants’ brief exposure to media images of females led to increased levels of body dissatisfaction and weight anxiety.
In fact, 70 percent of women feel depressed after looking at a woman’s fashion magazine for just three minutes!
Looking at images of friends’ “perfect lives” on Facebook and Instagram has been shown to have a similar effect. Amazing parties, fabulous shots of people having a ball without us, and picture perfect images of a stress-free life can trigger resentment, envy and low self-esteem. We forget that these pictures are curated to portray people at their best. Few are posting pictures of themselves having a really tough day.
The important thing to keep in mind is that these images are not reality. Studies show that when images are viewed with this in mind and with an understanding that the images represent a fantasy, they have less of a negative effect and can even improve mood.
As one saying goes: “You will never look like the girl in the magazine. The girl in the magazine doesn’t even look like the girl in the magazine.”
Bottom line: Enjoy these images for the fantasy, the beauty, the art and the creativity. Remember that they have nothing to do with reality.