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3 Insights About Social Comparisons

We frequently think of our relationships in terms of extremes: someone is either a friend or a rival. But most relationships are far more complicated, involving both collaboration and competition. In business or in everyday life, neither rivalry nor cooperation generates the greatest success. Rather, balancing both modes allows you to accomplish the most for yourself without alienating others.

In this blog, I am going to share the 3 concepts of social comparisons and how to use the same, effectively, to find the right balance of cooperation and competition, based on the book “Friend and Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both” by Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer.

1. Social comparisons are inevitable. Social comparison information helps us make sense of where we fit in at any point. The way we come to understand how well we are doing is by looking at others.

This is why 1.98 billion people use Facebook every day; not just to share information, but also to see where they stand relative to all of their friends—in everything from who got married first, to who is ahead in their career, to who took the best vacation. Do I earn enough money? Do I need to redo my kitchen? Are my kids doing well in school? Do I need to lose weight?

It is nearly impossible to reflect on these questions in a vacuum. Inevitably, we find ourselves looking to others for answers. Other people provide a benchmark to help us figure out where we are in the world and how we fit in. Consider your weight. Do you weigh too much or just the right amount? To answer this question, we often, consciously or not, think about our friends and their weight.

2. The second insight about social comparisons is that they come in two directions: up and down. Whether we look up or peer down has critical implications for both our life satisfaction and our motivation. Looking up makes us feel worse because we are constantly reminded that we are inferior to someone else, but can motivate us to strive harder. For example, we could aspire to follow in the footsteps of a role model. Looking down makes us feel good, but can lead to complacency.

Social comparisons are extremely powerful and the people around us knowingly or unknowingly alter us through social comparisons.

When researchers at Harvard Medical School repeatedly measured the weight of 12,067 people over a period of 32 years, they found that when one’s friends gained weight, it increased that person’s own chances of becoming overweight by 57 percent! Why? Because our brains tell us it’s okay to reach for that second doughnut as long as we don’t weigh much more than Ram or Mohan! Our own weight gain doesn’t look so bad if our friends have put on a little themselves.

Another poignant example of the role that social comparisons play in weight gain involves pregnancy. Women’s bodies undergo an amazing transformation during pregnancy. As a woman carries a child, she naturally gains weight. This is hardly a surprise; she is eating for two, after all. But what we find really interesting is what happens to men’s bodies when their wives are pregnant. There is no biological reason for an expecting father’s body to change. In practice, however, research shows that expectant fathers gain considerable weight during their wives’ pregnancies. In one study, a full 25 percent of expectant fathers claimed the need to buy a “paternity” wardrobe to accommodate their weight gain.

We believe that social comparisons powerfully drive these effects. How? Bit by bit, as the expecting mother gains weight, the expecting father loses just a bit of motivation to maintain his own weight. And before he knows it, this lost motivation has led to quite a few packed-on pounds. In very extreme cases, men even develop pregnancy symptoms that match those of the expectant mother. But it’s not just a matter of how you compare, but with whom you compare, that can determine whether the comparison motivates you to work harder or simply feel worse.

3. The third key insight is that people can become too motivated by social comparisons. As a result, social comparisons can tempt people to cheat, sabotage their rivals, or take crazy risks to come out on top. We compare ourselves with people with whom we collaborate most closely. For example, if there is a strong rivalry between a student who is the topper and the student who comes second in the class, there is a possibility that both of them might cheat in an exam, to get more marks than each other or to maintain their status.


As inherently social beings, we are programmed to compare ourselves to others—to our siblings, our neighbors, our friends, our officemates, our high school buddies, and our old college roommates. Depending on the circumstances, social comparisons can motivate us to collaborate more effectively, compete more vigorously, or even, as David Miliband did, retreat from the game altogether. Whether it is our weight, our salary, or our kitchens, comparisons help us make sense of how we are doing.

Thus, social comparisons have the potential to motivate us to perform better but feel worse. Or perform poorly and feel great. Take the example of the psychology of Olympic medalists. Silver medalists are unhappy because they are comparing themselves to gold medalists; bronze medalists, on the other hand, are comparing their results to those who came in fourth and beyond, and thus they are more pleased with themselves than silver medalists — despite the fact that the silver medalists technically beat them. In order to thrive in life, we need to find the balance between feeling good about ourselves and feeling motivated to perform well.

Competition and cooperation can be simultaneous. This is why the Williams sisters have shown such a remarkable ability to put aside any sibling rivalry and succeed as a team, racking up a gaudy 21–1 record in women’s doubles finals, including three Olympic gold medal performances in 2000, 2008, and 2012 Summer Games. Time columnist Josh Sanburn explained, “The Williams Sisters’ rivalry is highly unusual and utterly remarkable.” They are two of the greatest tennis players of all time and from the same family playing in the same era. Their relationship exemplifies how siblings can be our closest friends…and simultaneously our most intense rivals.

It also explains when we must compete with our peers to step up in life and when we must cooperate to feel good. Even in our workplaces, only those people thrive who know how to both collaborate and compete with their colleagues.

The authors Galinksy and Schweitzer thus suggest that when it comes to using social comparison to boost your own motivation, seek favorable comparisons if you want to feel happier, and seek unfavorable comparisons if you want to push yourself harder. You may not be able to quit your social-comparison habit, but you can learn to make it work for you.

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