We are influenced by social comparison more than we like to admit. When you see what others enjoy, you may suddenly feel that you need that to be happy. You don’t want to think this way. Like a child who urgently wants the red cupcake after another child chooses it, a neurochemical surge takes you by surprise. This demonstration effect is widely overlooked because it’s uncomfortable. Ignoring it gives it more power, alas. When you don’t know the impulse is inside you, you perceive it as an external fact.
You can learn to monitor your social comparison impulse instead. Then you can build your power to curb it when necessary, and enjoy it when it’s actually helpful. For example, Captain Cook used the power of social comparison to save lives. He wanted his sailors to eat sauerkraut to prevent scurvy, but they refused. So he put sauerkraut on his officers’ table, and invited everyone to help themselves from there. Soon, everyone wanted sauerkraut on their own table, and Cook’s voyages were the first to wipe out the horrible consequences of Vitamin C deficiency.
Social comparison has clear biological roots. For example, “mate choice copying” is widely observed in the animal kingdom. Animals of many species are known to prefer mating partners seen with others, especially high-status others. Females have a lot at stake in their mate choices because they invest so much in each offspring. Monitoring the choices of others gives them useful information. Humans do this too. Despite our best intentions, the desirability of a potential mate is affected by who they are seen with.
The consequences of social comparison can be positive, negative, or neutral. A neutral example would be the copying of speech patterns heard in others. A positive example is education. It has become highly desired despite the fact that young people often resist the act of studying. The urge to have the education seen in others lifted literacy rates from almost zero to almost 100% in much of the world in a short span of hstory.
Negative consequences are the ones that concern us. A curious example is medical treatment. In Captain Cook’s day, sick people hired doctors to bleed them if they had enough money. Everyone wanted “access” to the bleeding services enjoyed by the rich, and struggled to scrape up the money. Today, chemotherapy for cancer presents a similar conundrum. It has proven useless for some cancers, but people want “access” to this horrible treatment anyway. The desperate urge for hope when other cures have failed is understandable, but medical choices should be objective. Objectivity is difficult with a brain that creates a halo around what others have. Our choice of information is biased, so we believe we are “evidence-based” even as we rush toward desires fuelled by social comparison
The social comparison impulse is deeply rooted in the mammal brain. Animals compare themselves to others to avoid conflict with bigger critters. Their brains constantly make social comparisons to decide when to assert and when to withdraw. Natural selection built a brain that rewards you with the good feeling of serotonin when you gain the one-up position. This is why people seek it so eagerly without conscious intent.
We are taught to blame social comparison on “our society,” but it’s in every society in every time period. You have more power over this impulse when you recognise it. When you blame society. If you ignore the way your own brain is creating it, you abandon your internal power over it.
You can have more sauerkraut and less bleeding if you learn to monitor the halos you produce in your brain’s endless quest for serotonin.