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Why Do We Compare On Social Media?

“The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel." - Steve Furtick

Guilt, remorse and destructive behaviours follow regular comparison, researchers say. 

With the lines between genuine posts and #sponcon ever blurring, it's growing more difficult than ever to navigate the murky waters of the internet and keep feelings of envy at bay.

While some say that comparison between peers during times such as adolescence is unavoidable, others are noticing the long-term effects of constant self-comparison over time. 

Since comparison is a fundamental human impulse, there's really no way of shutting it down completely. But if we understand its origins, mechanisms, and what to watch out for, we may be able to mitigate the negative effects and amplify the good—both online and off.

Social comparison theory was first put forth in 1954 by psychologist Leon Festinger, who hypothesised that we make comparisons as a way of evaluating ourselves.

At its root, the impulse is connected to the instant judgments we make of other people—a key element of the brain's social-cognition network that can be traced to the evolutionary need to protect oneself and assess threats.

One can see how this process aided the first humans way back when. A hunter-gatherer might have survived on his exceptional prey-tracking skills alone, leaving the killing to those with better strength or speed. Nowadays, adolescents who realise that their talents lie in maths might opt for a STEM job, leaving novel-writing to their more verbally proficient peers. 

Our comparison-targets, as researchers refer to them, tend to be those we most closely identify with as well as those within our personal orbit.

Someone perusing through social media may not fixate how our lives correspond with Naomi Campbell or that of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, but rather to that of our family, friends, colleagues, and peers.

For people who spend a hefty proportion of their day on social media (thank you, Screentime) the lives we compare with ours might also include influencers, friends of friends and people we may never even meet.

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The corresponding comparisons we feel most acutely relate to domains we value, such as appearance, relationships, wealth, professional achievement, or goals even more specific.

However, it's not all bad news.

A 2015 study compiled by researchers by the universities of Essex and Cambridge showed that the tendency to engage in comparison processes declines across the lifespan.

One reason, they hypothesised, is that as we age, we're more likely to evaluate ourselves against the yardstick of our own past rather than the present state of others.

Meaning that social comparison is generally most potent for the young.

Moreover, social media seems to ascribe explicit valuations to people in ways that once seemed vaguer. The number of retweets, likes or friends, that another person garners compared to us can feel like solid proof of position on some imagined ladder.

So with Instagram and Twitter's new trial rollouts which shield likes from public consumption, might the tide be turning in relation to social comparisons?

Either way, abolishing visual likes is a great way to talk about and encourage more mindful and controlled usage of the app.

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