What came first: social media or social comparison theory?
It turns out this is no chicken-or-the-egg question. Humans have been social-comparing long before we turned into doomscrolling Instagram zombies. The theory was devised in the 1950s, and it’s innate—even children do it.
Looking through feeds that we know will inspire envy is a form of reverse schadenfreude. It’s the act of taking a weird, unexplainable delight in our own suffering—the misery caused by scrolling through moments from other lives that feature award-winning careers, glam social engagements and far-flung travels. It doesn’t feel good yet it’s a self-perpetuating, compulsive behavior.
Social media companies profit from our being wired for social comparison. Our relentless observation of Sparkling-Career Friend’s book-to-TV deal and Fitness Friend’s further chiseling of their killer 12-pack is their literal business model. It’s the reason we then see ads for TV writing courses and digital fitness programs.
Melissa Hunt, the associate director of the University of Pennsylvania Department of Psychology and a social media researcher, says these platforms are causing social-comparison overload. “When you look at other people’s lives, particularly on Instagram, it’s easy to conclude that everyone else’s life is cooler or better than yours,” she has reported.
So how can we excuse ourselves from this comparison carousel? Some may summon the willpower to delete their accounts, though most of us struggle with the simpler option of just logging off. With 223 million social media users in the United States alone, it’s unlikely many will decide to opt out. So how do we keep using the apps while losing the envy aspect? If we accept that “comparison is the thief of joy,” as the old adage goes, can we learn to use social technology in a way that isn’t robbing us?
It’s a Numbers Game. Shrink your Circle.
Social media allows us to see a much wider range of people across the world: celebrities, that person you went to high school with who won a MacArthur genius grant, your ex-partner’s ex-partner with the perfectly dressed children … the entire spectrum of comparison is possible. This is vastly different from the pre-social media world in which you might just envy someone within your IRL social circle. With increased vision comes increased possibility, and so next time you find yourself envious of a former classmate with a killer clothing line, rethink your friends list and consider only following close friends and family.
Remember: We’re All Doing It
The classmate with the clothing line is probably comparing themselves to someone whose business has even higher sales. Fitness Friend with the 12-pack surely has another link to Even-Fitter-Fitness Friend. With the proliferation of articles telling these tales of envy in the social media age, knowing it’s so widespread (FOMO is now a word in the dictionary and the subject of academic studies) breaks the illusion.
Take a 24-Hour Social Media Cleanse
Make a habit of having a day every week where you leave social media behind entirely and make your own memories in the three-dimensional space. A study in Britain reported subjects who tried this experienced improved mood, less anxiety and better sleep during their detox period. After all, you won’t envy what you don’t see.