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Social Comparison – Stuck in a Loop on Social Media?

Social comparison and social media, the double-edged sword that we often find ourselves dealing with. Why? Because social media is often referred to as an echo chamber for things that we love and things that also upset us. First things first, social media and the internet, possibly hands down one of the most innovative inventions of this century alone. We have removed the delays of communication from weeks down to seconds seeing the following positive results:

  • Economic growth.
  • Access to information and resources all around the globe.
  • Connectivity with loved ones at the touch of a button in seconds.
  • Creativity fostering.
  • Development of new niches that couldn’t have existed prior to.
  • Capability to find specialists in fields remotely all over the world, enabling companies to find the best employees for their business anywhere in the world vs within in a commutable distance.
  • Capability to live further away from the city and work remotely, especially something we have seen when faced with self-isolation during the current pandemic.

However, there can be some, if not many, negative aspects of social media and the internet too, such as:

  • Bullying and harassment.
  • Higher susceptibility to fraud.
  • Social anxieties heightened.
  • Time wasting.
  • Disconnect from those in our immediate presence.
  • Unrealistic expectations from warped and edited realities.
  • Procrastination and lack of efficacy.
  • Placement of value based on social interaction on the internet.

Like we mentioned above, it can be a double-edged sword…

Breaking Down ‘Social Comparison Theory’

‘Social comparison theory’ breaks down most if not all of the negative and also the positive aspects of human interaction on social media and media forms alike ie. Celebrities.

Social comparison theory is in short, our self-evaluation of ourselves to others. This is our personal comparison of ourselves to friends, family members, work colleagues, strangers, celebrities, and other types of targets such as literature, educational comparisons etc. Where you directly place yourself in comparison to someone or something else.

This isn’t just on a physical plane; this can also be a self-evaluation of:

  • Career status.
  • Educational holdings.
  • Financial well doings.
  • Relationships and social circles.
  • Family units and structure.
  • Object attainment.
  • Physical ability/disability.
  • Talents.
  • Goals.
  • Confidence presentation.

You get where we are going here, the list is endless for things and people we constantly compare ourselves to, even though we may not be consciously aware that we are doing it, we all do. It’s human nature to do it.

Upward vs Downward Comparisons

Not all comparisons are inherently negative or bad. This theory breaks down social comparison into two main sections in terms of direction. That is the comparison direction, depending on a person’s perception of the target status relative to their own.[1][2]

Upward Comparison: You are socially comparing yourself to something or someone else (target) and assess that you are in a ‘better’ position than them/it. Leaving you feeling in an upward/positive comparison.

Downward Comparison: Comparisons made where the perception of the self-evaluation leaves the evaluator feeling in a worse off position than the person/item.

Lateral Comparison: This is a neutral ground where relativity is found, social comparison was made and the self-evaluation led to relatability instead of upward or downward comparisons.

Predictability of Social Comparison Behaviour in Individuals

Interestingly, not all individuals are inclined to socially compare themselves to the same areas as others. Some are obvious and some aren’t. For example:

  • Young adults make more social comparisons to their friends than they do to their family members. [3]
  • Women with elevated body dissatisfaction more inclined to make appearance comparisons.
  • Individuals with depression and anxiety make more upward comparisons than those without. [4]
  • Men make more social comparisons equally to uniqueness in both physical attributes and personality characteristics than women do. [5]

There are counter variables with this too to keep in mind; people who identify with upward comparison targets, focusing on the similarities with themselves and the target tend to feel more inspired and driven by this target’s success as an attainable outcome for them. Whereas people who tend to contrast themselves against upward targets by focusing solely on the differences instead of similarities feel disappointed with the distance they measure between. [6] Whether an individual makes a positive or negative association between themselves and the target depends on the context and distance of comparison as well as the environment at the time, mood, hormonal fluctuations, and previous recollection toward the comparers attempts at a similar goal. This dictates a person’s self-perception, motivation, inspiration, and likelihood to instigate changes or not. [3]

Is Social Comparison Good or Bad for us?

We are humans, this is a very innate behavior in us that even relays way back to our oldest ancestors and is seen in the animal kingdom too. We have a tendency to constantly measure within our own created hierarchal scales. One of the most famous psychologists of our time right now Jordan B Peterson has observed this similar behavior in lobsters, believe it or not, based on their serotoninergic dominance is where they place themselves in comparison to others around them and their worthiness to compete, eat and mate for their place of value. [7][8]

Circling back on this with regards to social media and how it makes us feel… remember two main things:

  • Social media is a highlight reel.
  • Algorithms change what you see and create echo chambers.

We see this a lot in our messages and it breaks our hearts to read, for instance, women who have just had a baby only a matter of weeks ago, asking for supplements to assist with losing baby weight. Ladies, you have just grown a human, nourished, and are feeding this tiny human, gone through the physical trauma of childbirth be it natural or c-section delivery, and your hormones are primed to support your life and the baby’s life sufficiently. Do not add this exuberant amount of pressure to yourselves on top of this, wanting to get a six-pack back or shed the baby weight in a matter of days and weeks because a lady on Instagram had a baby and her body went straight back to pre-baby shape and weight quickly. That is such an anomaly and in the 99th percentile of attainment, and you don’t know what measures were taken for that to happen. Don’t compare yourselves to that.

Change what you echo to yourself and you change how you feel

Social media works the way it does because of algorithms, remember that. You start looking at fitness influencers, people flaunting money and items of wealth, clicking on them while you’re on the explore page or even just spending time reading the posts and watching the videos and that platform adjusts and pivots to show you more of ‘that’ because it keeps you on the platform for longer. It doesn’t know that you have had an upward comparison or a downward comparison to the image or content, only that you spent time looking at it, and will now show you more of it. From there it can spiral and become a negative association for you as a viewer and shift how you compare yourself.

Take control and change what you look at. Find people and topics and people who inspire you or have an upward or lateral comparison and view them frequently, shift the algorithm so it shows you more of this content that makes you feel inspired, motivated, and succeeding. Always remember too, social media is not the real world, these people still do the same thing you’re doing and compare themselves as well. No one is perfect, put your mental health first and become self-aware of your viewing patterns.

References:

  1. Wills, T. A. (1981). Downward comparison principles in social psychology.  Bull.90, 245–271. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.90.2.245
  2. Wood, J. V. (1989). Theory and research concerning social comparisons of personal attributes.  Bull.106, 231–248. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.106.2.231
  3. Wheeler, L., and Miyake, K. (1992). Social comparison in everyday life.  Pers. Soc. Psychol. 62, 760–773. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.62.5.760
  4. Wheeler, L., Shaver, K. G., Jones, R. A., Goethals, G. R., Cooper, J., Robinson, J. E., et al. (1969). Factors determining choice of a comparison other.  Exp. Soc. Psychol. 5, 219–232. doi: 10.1016/0022-1031(69)90048-1
  5. Furnham; T. Dowsett (1993). Sex difference in social comparison and uniqueness bias. , 15(2), 175–183. doi:10.1016/0191-8869(93)90024-w
  6. Buunk, B. P., and Ybema, J. F. (1997). “Social comparisons and occupational stress: the identification-contrast model,” in Health, Coping, and Wellbeing: Perspectives From Social Comparison Theory, eds B. P. Buunk and F. X. Gibbons (Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 359–388.
  7. https://medium.com/@roblea_63049/the-politicization-of-science-jordan-petersons-lesson-from-lobsters-90cb48e94526
  8. Lumban Gaol, Las Asimi & Mutiara, Amira & Saraswati, Nimas & Rahmadini, Rizqika & Hilmah, Maulidia. (2018). The relationship between social comparison and depressive symptoms among Indonesian Instagram users. 10.2991/uipsur-17.2018.19.