How to feel good about comparing yourself to others

Comparing yourself to others can lead to petty, mean thoughts. Or it can be a really good motivating tool, says Viv Groskop 

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By Viv Groskop on

When I was little, I didn't care that much what I got for Christmas. As long as I got more than my sister. Alright, alright, I'm not proud of it. But in my defence I am talking about when I was about six years old and my sister was about three. It was extremely important that she had exactly the same number of gifts as me. Or at the very least that she did not have more things than I did. I can still picture myself. Barely able to count. But able to count enough to know who had more.

I still feel a bit sorry for my parents who have since told me that they actually used to hold back things that they'd bought (and not give them to anyone) in order to make sure that the two of us sisters had exactly the same number of objects in our Christmas stockings. Of course, we would count them one by one and compare. And we would not care about the currency value of the gifts. We cared about who physically had more stuff.

This is embarrassing, of course, especially as I don't think I've ever really grown out of it and I still count the number of presents my parents give my sister and compare them to mine. But at least new research confirms that I am not being evil and petty, I am just being human. Or possibly it proves that to be human is to be evil and petty.

A new book by Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer – Friend and Foe: When to Co-operate, When to Compete and How to Succeed at Both – cites a classic study on comparison where capuchin monkeys were rewarded with either cucumber slices or grapes. The monkeys who got cucumber were perfectly happy and loving their cucumber. Until they realised that some other monkeys were getting grapes. At which point, as Galinsky and Schweitzer write, "they went ape-shit”. A bit like realising that your sister has a bumper tube of Smarties and you have a mouldy satsuma.

Another study shows the negative effect of winning an Olympic silver medal. If you win silver, you're likely to think: ‘That's great. But I could have got gold’

The researchers on this study (who got used to having cucumber thrown in their faces, rather like my parents got used to me throwing strops at 5.30am on Christmas Day) concluded that social comparison is a completely normal, if unedifying, reaction. And it is not confined to monkeys. It can be observed in the loftiest moments of human achievement. Another study quoted in the book shows the negative effect of winning an Olympic silver medal. If you win silver, you're more likely to think: "That's great. But I could have got gold." Whereas bronze medal winners are relatively content: they compare themselves to everyone who didn't get a medal at all. And no doubt celebrate with a feast of cucumbers and satsumas.

What I most love about this information (other than the fact that it gives me license to behave like a complete bitch towards my sister, which has pretty much been a life goal for most of my existence) is that it teaches you something useful. The authors' conclusion: "Seek favourable comparisons if you want to feel happier, and seek unfavourable comparisons if you want to push yourself harder." This is a motto to live by.

In other words, if you got the bronze-level stocking and you want to be content with it, then check out your cousins who barely got anything in their stocking at all. (True story. Their parents didn't believe in stockings. Harsh.) But if you got the silver stocking and you want gold ("Mum – where is my Cadbury's multi-pack? Why does Santa love her more?"), then for goodness sake write a better letter to the North Pole next time. My only worry now? At the age of 42, I might be finding all this out a bit too late.


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