Christopher MacDougall says “Every morning in Africa a gazelle wakes up and it knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed.” This actually isn’t true. Gazelles are herd animals. Any given gazelle in the herd doesn’t have to be faster than any lion—it just has to be faster than the slowest antelope.
Comparing ourselves to others makes a lot of sense from this evolutionary perspective. Being found wanting by fellow people can result in either getting kicked out of the herd or being eaten. We are hard-wired to constantly be comparing ourselves to others.
The problem with that is that there is always someone prettier, smarter, funnier, savvier, more accomplished, with a more precocious child and a better house. Frankly, when we compare ourselves to others there is always the opportunity to find ourselves wanting. What’s interesting is that we actually tend to compare ourselves favorably to others—we overestimate our driving abilities, therapists overestimate their competence relative to other therapists, as do professors. And yet, partly because of the many rigid and conflicting societal and cultural expectations, we also often deal with shame and inadequacy. That’s why it’s still the easiest thing in the world to find somebody to seems to have it more together, and to compare where you are with where they are.
We tend to respond to this in three ways, which are not exclusive.
We make assumptions about that person.
How often have we looked at someone who is physically beautiful and thought that their life must be so much easier? Or on some level assumed that rich people don’t have real problems? While being attractive and/or rich certainly is an advantage, it isn’t actually a guarantee that someone is happier than we are. Studies have shown that after someone loses a lot of weight, they are initially happier but then they return to baseline happiness. Others show that after basic financial needs are met, people stop getting happier. And then there’s the anecdotes, which aren’t hard to generate. After all, if being wealthy, famous and the top of your field meant that things were peachy, we wouldn’t have lost Robin Williams. In one sense, we know this, but comparing ourselves to others drudges up these assumptions.
We feel like crap
Much of the research on comparing self to others relates to body image and considers outcomes of eating disorders, self-esteem and anxiety. One study found that when young women compared themselves to slim female fashion models, their anxiety increased, as did activity in areas of the brain related to anxiety.
Sometimes we handle it by finding someone else to put down. We put them down in the category where we’re hurting (“she’s not that pretty—look at her eyebrows”) or another one (“she’s may be pretty but she’s dumb as a brick”). Brené Brown, shame researcher found that putting others down is one way women try to escape the “web” of shame. We try to feel bigger by belittling others. And while this can produce a temporary high, it’s not so helpful in the long run.This post is dedicated to Robin, a true friend.
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Last reviewed: 27 Aug 2014