Is comparison with your friend making you poorer?

Jul 08, 2019

You cannot ignore the spikes of envy when someone in your professional or social circle is just that much more financially secure than you. (It’s absolutely gut wrenching when, on top of it, they are good looking too).

Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer, both social psychologists, argue in Friend and Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both, that social comparison is an innate human tendency. On the one hand, it can fuel motivation. But it can be pernicious when it’s a big part of the way we determine our own level of happiness.

The book cites a revealing and humourous study by Frans de Waal of Emory University. De Waal trained capuchin monkeys to use stones as a currency. An individual would hold out an open hand, the monkey would drop a stone into it and would be given a slice of cucumber in return.

All went well till the cucumber was exchanged for a juicy grape, but only for some. Those that still got the cucumber had numerous reactions: refused to play, no longer accepted the cucumber, flung it to the ground, or sulked.

The authors make a very pertinent observation; that our outcomes are not evaluated in isolation but in a comparative process. We don’t assess objectively, we rely on comparisons. Think about it. How would you answer these questions: Do I make enough money? Am I well paid at my job? Are my children doing well? Do I need a new car? Is my house big enough? Even relationships are often benchmarked against another.

Without much ado, let’s swallow the bitter pill. We are hard wired to make comparisons across every domain- beauty, wealth, intelligence, success, and whatever else that does not fall in the above categories. That is the reality of human nature.

Morningstar’s behavioural economist Sarah Newcomb seconds that: “We can’t turn them off, we can only channel them.”

So how can we work around it to our benefit?

1. Pick your comparison wisely

Social psychologist Leon Festinger notes that there are two types of social comparison: upward and downward. We make upward comparisons with people who we think are better than us, and downward comparisons with those who we think are worse off. No prizes for guessing how you would feel about the relevant benchmark.

Galinksy and Schweitzer write that when it comes to using social comparison to boost your own motivation, the key rule is:

  • Seek favourable comparisons if you want to feel happier
  • Seek unfavourable comparisons if you want to push yourself harder.

The book recounts a study on Olympic medalists. Silver medalists tend to feel miserable because they have missed the Gold, because their comparison is with the gold medalists. Interestingly, Bronze medalists are happy and relieved that they got a medal (any medal), and so compare their outcome to those who never made it – the fourth and beyond. Consequently, they tend to be more pleased with themselves than the silver medalists are. Ironic, isn’t it, since the silver medalists beat them?

2. Be extremely cynical when it comes to comparison on Social Media, or SM.

SM portrays a heavily skewed image of one's life. Other individuals look at their peak experiences and compare it not with their similar ones, but their mundane day-to-day existence. University of Houston psychologist Mai-Ly Nguyen Steers once called it "everyone else's highlights reel". Newcomb notes that SM hosts best staged moments, and to compare it with your private humiliation is wrong. “What we have to do is catch ourselves and add some conscious thought to unconscious thought.”

At best, it’s a distorted slice of reality. You have no idea if they are deeply in debt to fund that lifestyle, if their investments are worth as much as yours, if they have any savings discipline, and so on. You may feel deficient seeing their holiday images, but unaware that financially you are way better off.

A 2016 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia noted that the neighbours of lottery winners were more likely to get into a financial mess because they unconsciously tried to match their spending with the newly rich guy next door. Keeping up with the Joneses leads to additional and unsustainable borrowing to promote conspicuous consumption. The end result: financial distress.

3. Be focused about what you want from your life.

Discover what you value and choose your own metrics for success. You may be spending time and energy working towards a goal that isn’t in line with your values.

George Kinder has an interesting incident to narrate. At a workshop in the U.S., a man stated that his goal was to buy a particular investment property. He discussed with Kinder the potential returns and what steps he would need to undertake over the next 10 years to make that project a reality. Kinder then posed three scenarios and asked him a few questions (read that here).

The individual realized that his dream was actually to build an authentic and deeper relationship with his 6-year-old son. Had he gone after his construction project, he would have had to spend more time away from his son. While he would have met his “goal” as he perceived it, it would have taken him further away from where he really wants to be as a person and as a father.

4. Compare yourself to a role model.

The effect of upward comparison is fairly toxic. Frequent upward comparisons can result in having more debt, lower savings, higher stress levels, and lower satisfaction with your situation. On the other hand, a downward comparison will just naturally make you feel better.

Instead of wasting energy on that, have a role model. When you have a role model or mentor, you have a desire to learn and get better.

Newcomb has a suggestion on how to pick a role model. Think about someone whose financial life or behaviour you admire. You could look up to them for their contentment, lack of stress over money, their ability to live below their means, their humility in not wanting to impress others, their minimalism. You don’t need to know them or their finances well. The point is to find someone whose lifestyle you admire (even if you only have a glimpse), and that you think you can realistically achieve for yourself over time. Make sure the goal you are setting is realistic, positive, and practical.

You can read more of Sarah Newcomb’s research on this subject here .

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