You’re standing in line waiting for those in front of you to order their favorite drink from the local coffee shop. Or maybe you’re sitting in the movie theatre, waiting for the ads to end and the main feature to begin. What do you do in these in-between moments? In a past life, you might turn to your friends or make small talk with whomever is standing next to you. If you’re not the extroverted type, you might have let your mind wander, working your way through your latest work issue. Now, however, people do one thing: grab the phone and scroll.
The mighty pull of our smartphone has filled these in-between moments with scrolling. And while this might be an issue in itself, it’s what we are scrolling through that I’m more concerned with. Whether we use Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or Snapchat, we’re opening our self up to the entire world. We can see our friends’ vacations, workouts, and milestones. Or, if that’s not good enough, we can follow celebrities, getting a behind the scenes view of their daily life and a glimpse of their house, pets, and parties. We’ve suddenly been given behind the scenes access to just about anyone on the planet — performative scenes or not.
In our modern world, not only do we have a drive to achieve, but our standards of what it means to succeed, or even what it means to be average, have drastically departed from reality. As we scroll through our phones, our minds are doing what they are designed to do: comparing ourselves to what we see.
Comparisons aren’t a new phenomenon reserved for Facebook scrolling. They are hardwired into us. They serve as cognitive anchors, giving us a point to know whether we are faster or slower, better or worse at reading and writing, or where our talent level lies for playing baseball. Comparisons are useful. They provide feedback and understanding, and in doing so comparisons allow us to orient ourselves in the world. They tell us if our child is developing at an appropriate level or whether we should be concerned; if we have talent in running or music or mathematics; if we have a chance with the girl next door.
Well before the social media boom, in the 1950’s the social psychologist Leon Festinger noted that when it came to people understanding their own capabilities, comparison played a crucial role. As he formulated his theory, Festinger came to two conclusions. First, people had an innate drive to evaluate themselves, both their opinions and their abilities. Second, “people evaluate their opinions and abilities by comparison respectively with the opinions and abilities of others.” Festinger believed that comparisons helped established norms from which we could evaluate ourselves. In other words, we get to know ourselves based on understanding where we stand in comparison to others. The social comparison theory was born.
We gossip among our friends about at what age our child crawled, walked, talked, and drew coherent objects. We know who is the fastest, strongest, or tallest in our family, class, or friends. We know that our son or daughter seems to pick up language at a quicker rate than his cousins, or has learned his multiplication tables a year earlier than his older brother. We observe that our kindergartener is reading E level books, while most of his class is stuck on C level ones. These are what we call local comparisons. They are shaped by people around us; friends, family, and peers. And for the vast majority of history, this more intimate peer group served as the foundation of our comparisons. They were largely local, with only a hint of a larger reach.
Local comparisons are what humans evolved to handle. Thousands of years ago in a disconnected world, comparisons evolved to help with our survival. They set the stage for understanding our place in our local tribe, and how to improve our status. Since we could only compare against a small group of relatives and fellow tribesmen, we could quickly find others who were of similar ability and stature. Out of this arena, competitiveness evolved to push us towards improving our place in the tribe. From these local comparisons grew the emotions of envy and jealousy.
Although we now see these emotions through a negative lens, they originated as a way to motivate and drive individuals towards bettering themselves. As researchers from UC San Diego put it, “The whole purpose of envy is to motivate you into action either by independently trying harder (envy) or by coveting and stealing what the other has (jealousy)…. envy evolved to motivate access to resources that are in demand by others in your group.” In other words, if someone in your tribe had more food or a slightly higher status, envy functioned to ensure that you had the drive to match him or her; increasing your chance of survival. Comparisons serve an important purpose, to motivate us, to give us norms, to set our expectations. To provide an anchor off which to judge and compete, to try to aspire to be our best selves.
This basic drive works well when the comparison point is achievable. When it’s just on the outer bounds of our potential; and that’s where it lied when our world was constrained to a few dozen of our close friends and relatives. We could measure up, maybe even move up a place or two in our tribe. But what happens when our point of comparison expands to encompass not just our close friends and relatives, but the entire world?
Comparisons once served to motivate, to provide accurate information on where we stood, or to firm up our sense of self. Now, increasingly they create unrealistic standards, almost always pointing us towards an upward comparison and ultimately dissatisfaction. We’re left with the impression that we aren’t pretty enough, smart enough, or athletic enough to take on the world. Our modern connected world beats us down, every way we look. Sending a message that we are always looking up, always playing catch up. Look no further than the fact that according to PEW research, 51% of people who make more than $100,000 per year believe they are in the middle class. Despite the fact that the median income in the US sits at just over $50,000.
We have a perception and a comparison problem. There’s too much information and data out there. The world is too large for us to measure up against. And when it comes to measuring up, judging whether we are successful or not, the deck is stacked against us. We’re attempting to live up to an impossible standard. As psychiatrist and author Peter Whybrow said in his book American Mania, “We guide our lives not by reason, but by immediate comparison: by the exemplar rather than by the rule.” This is only getting more severe given so much of what is posted in places of comparison (e.g., social media, television) is completely staged and fake to begin with.