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3 Social Comparison Biases that Torpedo Motivation

 You know you do it! Most of us do – some more, some less.

In the dark of night or light of day, at your desk, or procrastinating before the next task. ….

Trolling social media, watching your friends’ successes, casting judgment about whatever thing they’re posting and whether your life is better or worse.

We ride that wave of envy, taking the judgment train straight to motivation destroying misery.  So, if it feels terrible, why do we all do it? More importantly, how can we stop this unhelpful habit in it’s tracks?!

For answers, I turned to the research in Social Psychology.

Upward/Downward Social Comparisons

We all make social comparisons. In the absence of objective measures, our minds keep a sort of checks and balances to see where we stand in our social group (Festinger, 1954). One way in which we do this is with upward (more successful others) and downward (less successful others) social comparisons.

Downward comparisons (i.e. judging) can actually be habit forming because of the quick boost it gives us in mood and self esteem. As much as we hate to admit it, the perception that we are doing better than others makes us feel good! But judgers beware! This mind habit can backfire in the form of chronic irritability.

On the other hand, Upward social comparisons can make us feel low and cause a decrease in mood, motivation and performance. Recall the last time you compared yourself to someone doing much better than you AND in an area in which you are striving for success. This type of comparison can be the worst motivation destroyer!

For example, if you are just beginning to jog, but go jogging with a friend who runs 4 miles a day, you will likely feel defeated before you even begin. On the other hand, if a friend of yours who just took up jogging a couple of months ago invites you, this is more likely to help you feel motivated, because the goal feels more obtainable.

Bottom Line: Lofty goals are great! But resist the urge to compare yourself to someone too far out ahead of you. Practice accepting where you are and find role models who are just slightly more advanced to keep you inspired.


The Self-Serving and Attribution Biases

We naturally have a difficult time owning our own failures. So when we are confronted with someone performing better than we are, we seek a reason that can protect us from the pain of social comparisons.

This Self-Serving Bias was first studied in the late 1960s and still holds true today: When we succeed, we attribute it to our skills and abilities, when we fail to perform we attribute it to some external factor (e.g. the test was too hard, my parents did this to me, my boss is being unfair!).

But we do the reverse when we observe someone else’s behavior. Success in others is attributed to luck or some other external factor. But failure is automatically attributed to the individual (thus making us feel better as noted above).

Bottom Line: Shifting the blame for failure to something outside ourselves certainly protects us from lots of uncomfortable feelings (e.g. shame, guilt, etc.) short-term. But not owning responsibility can leave you feeling helpless and/or resentful, neither of which helps you solve the problem.

Be aware of this common autopilot thinking trap. Remember that failures are a sign that you actually tried something challenging. Honor your failures with self-compassion so you may empower yourself to do something different next time.


Fixed v. Growth Mindset

Perhaps the most pernicious bias influencing motivation is the mindset we hold about abilities generally. The question is, do you believe ability is the result of nature or nurture? Carol Dweck has termed this belief as either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. The one you ascribe to can seriously effect whether you persevere!

When you hold a fixed-mindset, you believe that talent and ability is something one either has or doesn’t have. The belief here is, “If I am not good at this now, I never will be, so why try?” Compounding this pain is the belief that if someone else is successful at something and you are not, “it just came easy” for them.

The green eye of envy can take hold because we don’t consider that the people to whom we are comparing might not have always had that talent or had to work to maintain it.

One the other hand, with a growth-mindset we are aware that performance is fluid and can always be improved upon through practice (or deteriorate in the absence of practice). Failures are more likely to be seen as ‘opportunities for growth’ and learning. The belief here is recognition that, “if I keep at it, I can improve!”

Bottom Line: Just as in a sport or any ability, there may be natural abilities, but through practice, we can always improve! Consider your own experience. Can you recall something you tried where when you started out it was challenging, but over time you improved? Of course you can!


The Practice: What’s Being Left Out?

Ask yourself, “What’s being left out?” This is the best and most simple skill you can practice for combating automatic comparisons and assumptions!

When faced with the awareness that others are doing things you wish you were doing, remember! Nobody posts moments like, “Sitting in the fetal position with a tub of ice cream. I hate my life right now!”

So practice:

  1. Ask yourself, “What’s being left out?” Might this person have been working for a long time towards this success?
  2. Seek role models who are just slightly more successful than you right now, and set small, achievable goals.
  3. Remember that you are a work in progress. Can you reframe failures into opportunities for growth and learning?

These steps will help you get unstuck from the grips of social comparison biases, and keep you committed to your goals on the road to True North!

If you would like to learn more self-help skills to build your resilience and self-mastery, sign up for the Mindful-Mastery Skills Weekly here. Or follow me on Facebook, Twitter,  or Instagram!




3 Social Comparison Biases that Torpedo Motivation

Dr. Fielding

Lara Fielding is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, who teaches, supervises, and specializes in the Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapies (CBT). Her private practice is in Los Angeles, where she is also an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University, Graduate School of Education and Psychology, and a Supervisor Psychologist at the UCLA Department of Psychology Clinic. Dr. Fielding teaches clients how to master the auto-pilot tendencies of the mind-body emotional system with mindfulness and self-care skills. As a behavioral psychologist, she works with clients to empower their skillfulness in managing stress and regulating difficult emotions. The skills she teaches are based on her research at UCLA, Harvard, and Peperdine, to incorporate the psycho-physiology of stress, emotion and cognition. Dr. Fielding has exhaustively studied the Mindfulness-Based CBT treatments (DBT, ACT, MBSR, MBCT) and their application for problems with Emotion Dysregulation. From this study, she derived a set of therapist guidelines for evidence-based practice. Dr. Fielding’s work is further informed by her research experience at UCLA and Harvard. Her research there explored the relationship between health behavior and the psycho-physiological effects of stress on cognition and emotion. Dr. Fielding is trained and experienced working with groups and individuals suffering from the effects of traumatic experiences, anxiety, and mood disorders. She has taught hundreds of clients concrete skills to better manage difficult emotions in the face of stressful life situations. With these cognitive and emotional skills in place, clients are guided towards personal values consistent behavioral change, in order to achieve their life goals.

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APA Reference
Fielding, L. (2016). 3 Social Comparison Biases that Torpedo Motivation. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from


Last updated: 29 Mar 2016
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