A year ago, because of social comparison, logging on to Facebook felt like playing a game of emotional roulette. I had just finished graduate school and was hunting for a job in magazine journalism. I regularly opened Facebook to see eager, boastful and occasionally smug posts from classmates who had been hired by large news outlets such as NPR, Business Insider and The Associated Press. As my stomach turned, I would think, Why didn’t I get that job? My credentials are just as good! If the post came from a person I didn’t deem worthy of such an impressive position, I would fall into a slump of self-pity for the rest of the day. When I saw people who didn’t land amazing jobs, I’m not proud to admit that I felt an odd sense of satisfaction.
One of my close friends texted me: “Well, I just went on Facebook and now I’m crying.” She had seen the medical school graduations, the new houses and the world travels, and started feeling like her life was at a standstill. Everyone else seemed to have life figured out, and she felt like hers was coasting by.
When L’Oreal Payton—a health and wellness reporter for Fortune—saw friend after friend sharing their engagements on Facebook a few years ago, she couldn’t help but throw her own pity parties, too. “I feel like a terrible friend for admitting this, but when one of my close friends got engaged, I was on the phone happy for her. And then when I was by myself in the shower, I cried,” she says. She’d been in a relationship for a longer period of time than her friend, but she hadn’t tied the knot. “I didn’t feel good about myself,” she continued.
What is social comparison theory?
We tend to compare ourselves to others on social media. It’s a natural human instinct to judge our progress or success by seeing how we match up against others. It’s what psychologist Leon Festinger called “social comparison theory” in the 1950s. Karen North, Ph.D., a clinical professor of communication at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, says we have always looked to others as a way to measure our progress in life. “The only thing that really changes is the technologies that mediate our behavior. Now we’re rediscovering psychological principles as they are playing out using digital devices,” she says.
Ongoing research regarding the effects of social comparison via social media is still uncovering new and updated information. One study published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions found that those who exhibited higher rates of “problematic social media use (PSMU)” were likely to negatively compare themselves to those they felt were doing better than them. That focus and negative self-comparison “partially mediated the link between PSMU and depression,” according to the study, one of several which has examined the link between social media use, social comparison and depression.
The comparisons we make may leave us feeling blue and insecure, as if we’re not keeping up with everyone. We used to compare ourselves to how we saw people at family gatherings or in the office. Now we compare ourselves to perfectly crafted (and sometimes exaggerated) representations of people’s lives. What we don’t see is the engagement ring that doesn’t fit, the sunburn while surfing in Costa Rica, the less-than-stellar salary at the new job or the anxiety that comes with having a newborn baby. We see exactly what they want us to see.
Social comparison amplified
We know that using social media could make us anxious or depressed. Yet, we still scroll through our feeds to see whether people have hit the milestones we also hope to hit. Social comparison is a natural part of being human. We want to measure our progress. Payton says she felt great after giving up Facebook for Lent one year. But she couldn’t resist going back when her curiosity about what everyone else was doing took hold. Today’s teenagers call this FOMO, or “fear of missing out.”
“How do you figure out where you stand? How do you figure out whether you’re good at things or bad at things?” North asks. “What you do, and what everybody does, for the most part, is what we call social comparison theory. We look at others and say, ‘How do we stack up compared to other people around us?’”
It’s a normal way to measure our progress in life. But it becomes problematic when we compare ourselves to perfectly crafted versions of other people, or when we compare ourselves to people in different stages of life.
Carefully choose who you compare yourself to
North says there is a fascinating phenomenon (and problem) at the heart of social media comparison: choosing who we actually compare ourselves to. She says when you ask people how well they perform a certain task, most will say they can do it better than about two-thirds of their “relevant peer group,” from recreational tennis to teaching fifth grade to running a company. North says we all have a “very real need” to feel better than this many people, so we alter our relevant peer group in order to feel confident.
“We manipulate what we believe to be our relevant peer group by setting our own standards,” she says. The detrimental effect of this is that we’re making comparisons that are either way too far-reaching (e.g., an entry-level accountant comparing themselves to a CEO) or we’re manipulating our group so we’re far better than most (e.g., a freelance writer with 40 years of experience comparing themselves to 22-year-old bloggers).
North suggests the first step toward healthy social comparison—after all, some is good—should be identifying the correct peer group. Then you can make reasonable upward and downward judgments. “Successful people really need to compare upward at least part of the time,” she says. “They need to find their relevant peer group and say, ‘I’m better than two-thirds of my relevant peer group, but let me take a look at the one-third and see what they’re doing that’s better.’”
By identifying the correct peer group, we can feel a sense of accomplishment and pride. And we can admire those above us and strive to achieve what they have, whether it’s a big promotion or a yearly exotic vacation.
Image crafting at its finest
Facebook began as a way to connect with people both near and far. It was a platform for posting everything from the new mind-blowing Bright Eyes song we just heard to the delicious beignet we just scarfed down. We enjoyed sharing our day with friends and family. It has since evolved into a platform for sharing the most meaningful, remarkable or unique moments in our lives, and not only because we feel a stronger urge to post content that will garner numerous likes. We now know who might be looking at our page: potential employers, ex-boyfriends, the new co-worker we want to impress.
How to stop social comparison in its tracks
We now feel self-imposed pressure to share (and amplify and beautify) the big life moments, not the everyday ones. If we do post the everyday ones, we incorporate image crafting, or the process of posting deceptively exciting and beautifully staged photos in order to seem more perfect on social media. Friends see a couple hiking in Hawaii, but not the terrible argument they had the same day. “On Facebook or Instagram, you don’t have the benefit of observing people in their natural environment,” North says. “What you see instead is the façade or presentation that people want to portray.” We risk comparing our seemingly banal lives with ones that seem thrilling and ever-changing, which can make us feel inferior.
Because of the perceived pressure people feel to post moments just as interesting or exciting as everyone else’s, they may exaggerate or share misleading information. North agrees, calling Facebook a “PR machine”—a vessel for ensuring others see our lives as picture-perfect and impressive, not riddled with inevitable setbacks and flaws.
I later discovered that the classmate who I thought landed a job at NPR was really just an intern. And Payton discovered her friend who landed a killer job after college only did so because her dad had a connection on staff.
“People need to learn to take other people’s social media posts with a grain of salt and recognize that it represents how people want to share their experiences,” North says. “All the facts are not there.”
So the next time you are tempted to throw a social media-induced pity party, remember that most of the time, nothing is nearly as perfect as it seems.
This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine and has been updated. Photo by Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Jamie Friedlander is a freelance writer based in Chicago and the former features editor of SUCCESS magazine. Her work has been published in The Cut, VICE, Inc., The Chicago Tribune and Business Insider, among other publications. When she's not writing, she can usually be found drinking matcha tea into excess, traveling somewhere new with her husband or surfing Etsy late into the night.