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Social Comparison Exhaustion; Time to Fight Back

Updated on January 20, 2018
Endy Noble profile image

Endy is a social enthusiast. He writes on faith, politics and other social issues.


Psychologists had established that people evaluate their abilities, opinions, successes and attributes with those of others as a means to ascertain performance and growth level. This is a form of cognitive ability common among humans as they thrive competitively upward for the top position. This ability to evaluate oneself in a constricting manner is called social comparison.

According to Hart Blanton, University of North Carolina and Diederik Stapel, University of Groningen, Netherlands, people are prompted by subliminal cues to make automatic social comparisons. In an interview, Blanton said past research has tended to look at this social comparison in a context where it’s pretty obvious what’s going on. However, He and Stapel wanted to get at the automaticity of it by having it occur outside of awareness.

In a research, Stapel and Blanton surveyed 114 participants in a ‘watched as flashed pictures for 110 milliseconds’—a time quick enough for the participants to consciously realize the content. The result of this experiment shows that 50% of the participants viewed the pictures of a baby girl, while the remaining 50% viewed the pictures of an elderly woman. Participants who viewed the picture as a baby rated themselves as older on a seven-point scale from young to old while those who viewed the picture of an elderly woman rate themselves as young on the same scale.

In another study, it was established that many people in the world suffer from social comparison exhaustion. According to a new study published in Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, it was found that people compare their lives to ‘fabulous’ celebrities as shown daily on social media. The study concluded that this comparison to fabulous celebrities causes depressive symptoms in people as they tend to develop negative emotions such as:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Self-condemnation
  • Contagious strive
  • Broken or dis-spirited individual
  • Jealousy, envy, and hate
  • Self-guilt
  • Depression among others

These symptoms are what I now refer as 'Social Comparison Exhaustion'. According to Teddy Roosevelt, “Comparison is the thief of joy”. This is very true when we look at the negative effects of social comparison in our today's society. Another researcher who worked on how to attain happiness establishes that “self-acceptance is a vital key to healthy and happy life”. However, this is what people lose when they engage in a negative social comparison, eventually results in social comparison exhaustion.

Recently, I met a lady who according to her graduated from University some five years ago and since then was not able to secure a job. Also, men ain’t coming either to seek her hand in marriage. In her words, “I graduated from school with a second class upper division. I was better than most of my course-mates, academically and committed to serving the Lord. Why can’t I find a job? My mates are working in big places. Vicky works in Rivers State Government House, in fact, directly in the office of the governor. She is also happily married too. She barely manages to graduate with a second-class lower division. John works with GTbanks and he is a branch manager. He had a third class from University and he is doing very well. Here am I—no job, and men ain’t coming? Am I not beautiful enough? What’s wrong with me?” She asked breaking down in tears.

Her honest lamentations called my attention to some of the vital questions about how people measure their achievement and life progress. Should we measure our achievements by comparing ourselves or what we have achieved with those of other people? If yes, how does this comparison affect us and the society? These are some of the questions that led me into this research on social comparison, its effect on people around the world, and possible consequences.

“Don't always be appraising yourself, wondering if you are better or worse than other writers. "I will not Reason and Compare," said Blake; "my business is to Create." Besides, since you are like no other being ever created since the beginning of Time, you are incomparable. ”

— ― Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit


Social comparison is an age-long phenomenon and difference social comparison theories had evolved over the years. One of such theories was put forward by Leon Festinger, a social psychologist in 1954. Festinger stated that:

  • Humans have a basic drive to evaluate their opinions and abilities through objective means
  • If this evaluation is objective, non-social means were not available
  • Comparison tendencies decreases with divergent opinions, abilities or social cycle
  • There exists a unidirectional upward drive in comparing abilities, but this is largely absent in opinions. Festinger referred to this as value placed on doing better and better with each endeavor
  • There are non-social restraints that make it difficult or impossible to change one’s ability but this he said, is largely absent in opinions
  • Cessation of comparison with others is accompanied by hostility or derogation, and a continued comparison could imply an unpleasant consequence
  • Factors which increase the importance of comparison among group on opinion or ability will increase the pressure towards uniformity
  • If people with divergent opinion and ability are perceived as different from oneself, a tendency to narrow the range of comparability becomes stronger
  • Finally, Festinger started that when there is a range of opinion or ability in a group, the relative strength of the three manifestations of pressure toward uniformity will differ for those closer than those who are distant from the mode. Those closer to the mode he said will have stronger tendencies to change the positions of others, weaker tendencies to narrow the range of comparison, and even weaker tendencies to change their own opinions”.

Another psychologist, Thorton and Arrowood observed that “Self-evaluation is one of the functions of social comparison”. Later advances in this theory led to self-evaluation motives, self-enhancement, self-verification, and self-improvement. Evaluation of motives in social comparison gives birth to upward or downward effects depending on the motives for such a comparison. The motive for comparison creates the distinction between negative and positive social comparison and this is where the line of battle lies.

Why do people compare themselves to other people? What are the possible effects of such comparison? How many people can actually handle the negative effects of such comparisons in real life situations? Answering this question, however, involves putting into consideration a number of factors.

Factors that lead to Negative Comparison

Social comparison has either positive and negative sides or what is otherwise known as the upward and downward comparison. There are a number of factors that lead to a self-destructing social comparison. I could love to look at a few of these factors here.

1. Nonlinear Comparison

All around the world, many people suffer comparison exhaustion because they had made other people their sole mirror for the wrong reasons. Others can’t differentiate between opinions and abilities as factors for social comparison, hence, someone without certain skills and abilities will be caught up in the net of comparing himself with another who is endowed with such skill or ability. This is called nonlinear comparison and this form of comparison is like comparing a male’s to a female’s role in reproduction whereas the two are unrelated. Ultimately such comparisons translate into frustration and depression.

The destructive effects get worst with the fact that people wrongly measure their abilities by class of degree or academic performance. The truth is one might be good at cramming pages of books but not necessarily good at relating with people. The other maybe good at relating with people but may not be good at cramming pages of books. The result for these two is not the same, and comparing them will result in possible comparison exhaustion.

2. Personal Life Choices

Another very practical area is our personal life choices. One who chooses to be good cannot compare himself (or rather shouldn’t compare himself) to one who chooses the evil path because the two are not the same. And sometimes because we live in a society heavily laden with evil and immoral practices in the public arena, bad people are more favored. So, if one decided to be a follower of Christ, does he need to compare himself to someone who chooses to be a follower of the devil? Does that make any sense to me and doing this in my opinion will be a great personal disservice!

Our choices have direct effects on our differences in status, success, and achievement level. Of course, one shouldn't forget choice is ability. Should people with moral consciousness and ethical disposition compare themselves to those without such values at the expense of such highly priced virtues and abilities? Certainly not! Ability isn’t only what we can do; it also includes what we chose not to do as a sign of respect for our image, even when we have the capacity to do such.

3. Destiny Effect, otherwise known as ‘Time and Chances’

A lot of us forget this all important factor called destiny (that’s time and chances) especially when we engage in negative social comparison. We tend to forget divinity plays a role in what manifests in the life of each one of us. I wish to put on record that every individual's life in some ways has a divine undertone that makes it difficult to comprehend. We may live in the same neighborhood but by divine rule, each of us is uniquely different, and our inner spiritual uniqueness manifests at different time and stages as chance events. This is a fact that we don’t always consider when we engage in social comparison.

“The vast majority of us imagine ourselves as like literature people or math people. But the truth is that the massive processor known as the human brain is neither a literature organ or a math organ. It is both and more.”

— ― John Green

How Do I Win Back My Lost Esteem to Social Comparison?

Gaining back a lost esteem from negative social comparison requires conscious efforts. First, these efforts should be directed toward achieving the following:

  • Upward social comparison

As humans we can hardly do without comparison. If this is true, we’ve to learn how to actively engage in upward social comparisons in order to avoid the negative effects of downward comparison. Aspinwall and Taylor suggest an upward social comparison where the individual or group becomes more motivated to think positively and acts better. This will involve incorporating objective reasoning into comparison by eliminating all forms myopism. This no doubt can improve image and creates an individual that thrives toward self-improvement.

  • Knowledge of self and self-discovery

One of the biggest ways to rescue one’s self from negative tendencies of social comparison is through self-knowledge or self-discovery. Having a good grasp of one’s divine nature helps people from seeing and comparing themselves with others. Once one begins to see himself as a unique divine entity, when this happens, the battle of negative social comparison is half won. Knowledge of self is an invaluable tool to overcoming both conscious and unconscious social comparison especially the negative ones.

There is no alternative to self-knowledge and Williams Shakespeare advised, “Man know thyself!” Until one discovers a personal path, the battle for social comparison continues to wreck great and pristine lives.

  • Self-acceptance

Self-acceptance is the embracement of one owns self. Obviously, man is an animal of an impression and most often, we work too hard to impress people because their acceptance makes us feel better about our personal image. However, impressing other people or gaining their acceptance doesn’t really come easy, and when it comes, it's not always guaranteed.

The best form of social acceptance which is real, enjoyed by only a few; and which should be focused is ‘self-impression’. The best way to see ourselves, therefore, is basking in the reflected glory of our inward personality—not in the conflicting perception or opinion of us by other people. We must choose to impress ourselves over impressing others because of what they think of us is not important—this is the goal of self-acceptance.

  • Understanding our purpose

Just like every one of us had been uniquely made, possessing a DNA that bears no resemblance to another as shown by DNA fingerprinting so is our purpose in life—differing and uniquely diverse. Understanding one’s purpose of existence ultimately stands one out on a track others can’t run along. This also eliminates the multiplicity of social comparison and its negative effects.

Understanding one’s purpose helps us to get off the track of distraction and strive—the two ultimate sources of misery and depression. According to Schechter (1959), “Misery doesn’t just love any kind of company, it loves only miserable company”. If we revert this quote in a positive light, “Purpose doesn’t just love any kind of company; it loves only purposeful company”. This is where the joy of life is: ‘doing one’s own bit in an environment of passion and love, devoid of comparison’.

Building non-beneficial relationship with God

One of the surprising things about people of faith is the fact that most people build a beneficial relationship with their maker. This has in most cases lead to bad ending. When one who commits a lot to ‘serving God’ faces difficulty and hardship, he tends to compare himself with one who is not. However, love for a supreme ‘being’ like God should be total and unconditional—a kind that is built without expectations.

Building a non-benefit attached relationship with God is one of the ways to fight and overcome depressive effects of social comparison.

  • Developing objective mindset

Of course, our minds will always continue to set the template for our lives. Personally, I’ve come to believe that the greatest witch in the world is a negative mindset. The way our minds are set affects the way we see things. Gleefully, we see creatively through our mind. When we develop an objective mindset, we tend to see things more thoroughly, logically, rationally, and clearly. Our physical eyes are just to see the physical things but every other form of seeing—mental, psychological, and spiritual come through the mind. That is why Helen Keller said, “The most pathetic person in the world is not a person with eyes but one vision”.

  • Redefining motives for comparison

Finally, for this essay, I must admit it’s hard and near impossible not to compare oneself with other people or have some external standards. We perpetually measure ourselves and achievements with those of other, seeking some level of social acceptance. We all do this! The difference, therefore, is in the motives for this measurement.
What are your motives for social comparison? Are these motives authentic? Are they promotional or negatively self-infesting? How are they helping you in our daily drives for success and happiness?

If your answers to these questions are not healthy, then you need to redefine your motives. Bad motives will mar us and result in depressive tendencies. This can lead to social comparison exhaustion—the effects of which most of us are not ready for. We must, therefore, work toward realistic life's dreams, successes, and happiness that are reflective of inner drives and not outward illusions and competitive drives.

“Personality begins where comparison leaves off. Be unique. Be memorable. Be confident. Be proud.”

— ― Shannon L. Alder


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    • Endy Noble profile image

      Ajodo Endurance Uneojo 6 weeks ago from Lokoja, Nigeria.

      Thank you Jessie Watson.

      The hub was inspired by the reality on ground.

      Like you rightly pointed out, the social media is a make-believe world. Anyone who mistakes the flashy appearances for reality will most likely suffer the symptoms of social comparison exhaustion.

      Thanks for this valid comment!

    • Jessie L Watson profile image

      Jessie Watson 6 weeks ago from Wenatchee Washington

      Great article. I think these symptoms are worsening the longer people grow attached to social media.

      Although I would say it is healthy to look at oneself in the mirror and wonder if we're everything we could be. There's merit in putting oneself together and getting out there. We just have to define the parameters of that for ourselves.