Picture this scene: Little Johnny's mother places a large piece of chocolate cake on his plate. He's pretty happy with it -- until he glances over at his brother's portion and notices that it's even bigger than his own. Suddenly Johnny is no longer satisfied with what he got. He starts to pout and complain, and may even resort to throwing his cake on floor.
Sound familiar? If you didn't have this experience growing up, you have surely observed it in others. And it's not only kids who engage in this sort of comparison. Adults do it too.
Suppose you get a 10% raise at work. "That's pretty good," you might say to yourself. But a few days later you find out that someone else got 12%. Now you're not so pleased. Your inner brat starts grumbling about your raise not being fair, or not being nearly enough.
The actual dollar amount of your raise hasn't changed, but your attitude toward it has. Why?
It's a result of what psychologists call "social comparison." Humans are social animals, so it's natural to view ourselves in relation to other people. It's not necessarily bad, either:
- Much of our helping behavior and charitable giving come from comparing our own circumstances with those who are less fortunate.
- Social comparison is useful in situations where we're not quite sure how to act. Let's say you're attending services at a house of worship whose rituals and procedures are unfamiliar to you. You'll probably look around and see what everyone else is doing so that you can follow along.
- Social comparison contributes to order in society. When people dress, behave and speak in similar ways they feel a sense of belonging and loyalty within group.
BUT THERE IS A DOWNSIDE TO SOCIAL COMPARISON. Routinely comparing yourself to others -- especially when it comes to money, talent, recognition and material possessions -- will invariably lead to dissatisfaction, even if you come out on top.