The Science of Why We Compare Ourselves to Others

A neuroscientist explains our obsession with “upward social comparison bias.”

Erman Misirlisoy, PhD
Forge
Published in
4 min readAug 25, 2021

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Photo: We Are/Getty Images

One of the most self-defeating things we do is compare ourselves to other people. Are we making as much money? Do we have as many friends? Is our lifestyle as glamorous?

The answer to those questions rarely makes us happy because we’re biased toward being too hard on ourselves. We choose to compare ourselves exclusively with people who are one step ahead, and we usually focus on the dimensions that make us feel insecure. In other words, we rig the game so that we always lose.

Comic by Sephko

Our obsession with upward comparison

In some ways, social comparison is useful because it supports healthy societal norms. Healthy norms guide good behavior: They push us to bathe regularly, use words like “thank you”, and generally avoid insulting people. We’re all born with a productive urge to fit in, and we fit in by comparing our behavior to other people’s behavior.

But there’s one major problem with the way we judge ourselves relative to others. As we make progress with our goals, we constantly shift the goalposts, forgetting about how far we’ve already come and believing we can only be happy when we catch up with the next person.

A 2018 meta-analysis of all available evidence on social comparison revealed a clear problem: When people compare themselves to others, they consistently choose to compare upward rather than downward. They cherry-pick people with more money, more fame, better health, greater attractiveness, etc, and then naturally feel deflated by the outcome of that comparison.

When climbing a tall ladder, “don’t look down” might be good advice. But when your sense of self-worth, confidence, and motivation are on the line, never looking down on the ladder of life is a real problem. You lose perspective, forget past achievements, and create impossible standards for yourself. Worst of all, you risk feeling envious and unfulfilled by judging yourself based on arbitrary social standards…

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Erman Misirlisoy, PhD
Forge
Writer for

Research Leader (Ex-Instagram / Chief Scientist at multiple startups). Author of the User Insight Newsletter: https://userinsight.substack.com/