There’s no denying it, man is a social animal. We want to eat together, work together, and even relax together. And in all this, we can’t help but start noticing how we stand with respect to others. We want to fit in, but also to stand out. In short, we are constantly comparing ourselves to others, and wondering how to advance ourselves in the pecking order. Psychologists call this social comparison, and that’s what you exhibit when you go through your Facebook feed and worry about everyone having a better life than you. Or when you want to get the same car as your neighbour did, but in an upgraded model.
The concept is not just limited to material possessions. While much has been discussed about how overspending to maintain social status can affect financial stability, repercussions of such comparison can extend well beyond our bank balance. And in a positive way too.
Those who use fitness apps know this already: there is an instant motivation boost when you compare your results with that of others. Researchers at Santa Clara University confirmed this, noting that social comparison effects explain why many engage in peer-driven, health-promoting behaviours, like playing tennis. Or even health-damaging behaviours, like smoking. That’s what peer pressure is. Want to be healthier? Consider getting a fitness band or app that tells you how you stand compared to the average person like you. Or simply join a fitness community, a tennis club, or a football team.
Unchecked consumption can drain limited shared resources, which is why utility companies often use comparison to point out if you have used more or less electricity/ water than the average consumer. When presented with this information, over-users regulated their consumption, helping reduce utility bills. As for the under-utilisers, they tended to increase their consumption, unless they were appreciated for their frugality. Lessons to be learned? A bit of positive benchmarking can help us go green.
Discouraging negative behaviour
What have broken windows got to do with rising crime on the street? Plenty, as it turns out. The Broken Windows theory suggests that ignoring small misdemeanors or anti-social acts can lead to bigger violations later on. Therefore, if windows are broken they must be fixed to prevent more windows from being broken and the building being burgled. Litter on the street corners must be cleared before it encourages more people to dump garbage there. A vital lesson here is that social comparison cues can come from the surroundings too. So, taking time to maintain your car or implement values across your organisation can have far deeper consequences than you imagine.
Yes, social comparison can sometimes lead to social envy and poor financial decisions. But leveraging the innate human need to keep up with the Joneses can have positive outcomes. Just like social platforms amplified acts of kindness during the Kerala floods, encouraging more people to help. And that’s where we have a chance to really shine.