How Wrong is it to Compare Yourself with Others?

July 21, 2006 | 38 comments
By

A growing body of research (mine own included) in various social sciences finds that people report higher happiness levels when they do better than the people around them. How well you do matters, but how well you do relative to your friends and neighbors does, too. Think of the student who feels bad about getting a 50% on the exam until she learns that the average was 20%.

It seems clear that some comparing is insidious and sinful. Coveting, for example, is prohibited by the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:17). Yet, not all comparing is so insidious. Because the mind is an information processing machine, it craves information, and learning others’ achievement levels provides the mind with potentially useful information about the external environment. The student who learns that the class average was 20% still knows that she has much room to improve, but she now also knows that the test was extremely difficult. This new understanding can potentially aid her in her continued studies. In short, observing others provides the mind with information about what is a good or appropriate achievement that can then, in turn, be used to accomplish other ends. This is why some claim that our brain is hard-wired to make such comparisons.

I think there is a proper place in the Gospel for making comparisons. Knowing that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God� (Rom 3: 23) can help a sinner understand the importance of the Atonement and that forgiveness is possible. But any comparisons beyond this are sinful. That we are hard-wired to make comparisons does not excuse us from making them. It may help us understand the difficulty in overcoming the sin and help us sympathize with others facing the same problem, but it does not excuse us for the sin itself. Part of this life is overcoming the natural (wo)man,

When do you think it is wrong to make comparisons? When is a comparison sinful, and when is it not sinful? If you are hard-wired to make such comparisons, to what extent can we overcome the practice of comparing?

Tags:

38 Responses to How Wrong is it to Compare Yourself with Others?

  1. DavidH on July 21, 2006 at 1:05 pm

    I wanted to hurry and post this quote from Elder Holland before M&M does:

    “One observer has written: ‘In a world that constantly compares people, ranking them as more or less intelligent, more or less attractive, more or less successful, it is not easy to really believe in a [divine] love that does not do the same. When I hear someone praised,’ he says, ‘it is hard not to think of myself as less praiseworthy; when I read about the goodness and kindness of other people, it is hard not to wonder whether I myself am as good and kind as they; and when I see trophies, rewards, and prizes being handed out to special people, I cannot avoid asking myself why that didn’t happen to me.’ 8 If left unresisted, we can see how this inclination so embellished by the world will ultimately bring a resentful, demeaning view of God and a terribly destructive view of ourselves. Most ‘thou shalt not’ commandments are meant to keep us from hurting others, but I am convinced the commandment not to covet is meant to keep us from hurting ourselves.” Ensign May 2002.

    The quote at the beginning is from Henry Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. As far as I can tell, not only is Elder Holland the only general authority to quote Halle Berry, he is the only one to quote Henry Nouwen, an insightful Roman Catholic priest.

  2. gst on July 21, 2006 at 1:51 pm

    I don’t compare myself to others as much as most people do.

  3. DHofmann on July 21, 2006 at 2:16 pm

    When I look for the good in others, I’m making comparisons. I hope that’s not a sin.

  4. bbell on July 21, 2006 at 2:41 pm

    Its bad, Esp amongst families. I can see why not coveting is in the “original 10″

    Its also universally practiced and causes much angst.

  5. mullingandmusing (m&m) on July 21, 2006 at 2:43 pm

    I think when pride is at the root of comparing, then sin is part of the picture. If we compare to gratify ego, to make ourselves feel better (or worse), it can’t be good. What comes to mind as a possible “good” comparison is strictly in the mode of wanting to do/be better, and seeing an example of how that is possible. However, in the ideal sense, shouldn’t we only be comparing ourselves to Christ?

    p.s. DavidH, nice quote. :)

  6. John Anon on July 21, 2006 at 4:17 pm

    I think that the inherent problem with comparisons is that we only ever make comparisons having half the story. We cannot know what is going on in someone else’s head (for good or ill) and so we cannot really do a good job of judging their acts, their motives, their successes, or their failures. It is a very human thing to do, but to do it right requires God-like omniscience that we are privy to only in our most prideful delusions.

  7. Mark Butler on July 21, 2006 at 4:51 pm

    I agree with John Anon. To me the problem is not comparing so much, as what we compare and why. The fact is that every person is a child of God with divine potential. That makes the idea of an absolute or eternal comparision rather pointless – we simply do not know.

    That does not mean, however, that we cannot call sin by its proper name, it just means we cannot make an unalterable association between sin and personality. It is God’s will to cleanse all of us from our sins, and we must treat others in that light – sins as unfortunate, temporal weaknesses, and not eternally inevitable aspects of character.

    So when we see a righteous person, or our righteous ourselves we should not give them too much credit, or give ourselves too much credit lest we or they be led unto boasting or pride, but rather give God all the credit, and let him bless us where he may. We can take joy in our successes and joy in others successes, but there is no reason to joy because others have failed, only that we or others have succeeded. Schadenfreude is not of the spirit of the Lord.

  8. DKL on July 21, 2006 at 5:28 pm

    The scripture “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” expressly compares us with God. It says we’re not as good as him. We don’t take that as impolite, because we consider it a given.

    My position is that people get hung up because it’s rude to say to someone, “I’m better looking then you.” So some people mistakenly think that it’s rude to think it, too.

    Our environment provides an inevitable baseline against which we test and rate ourselves, and that includes the people who populate it.

    And I don’t see the connection between “He’s more affluent than me” and “I want his x.” Let’s take as an example, something simple like a TV set. Frankly, I covet any flat screen HDTV larger than 35 inches. Sure, this is sinful. But I know people who own huge, flat screen High Def TV sets who make a third what I do. My wife just won’t let me buy one. (Now imagine the furor it would cause, and what a beast I would appear to be if my wife said that she couldn’t have something because her husband wouldn’t let her–but that kind of asymmetry is a different topic.)

    There’s no more connection between “He’s more affluent than me” and “I want his bank account” than there is a connection between his affluence and his TV. Moreover, I can covet anything without comparing myself to them in any way. For example, I can covet someone’s Bachelors in Economics no matter what level of education that I have. Sure, I may have to compare my education, but I would correct anyone who tried to identify me with my education.

    In the end, it’s just a matter of priorities. Any adult thinking, “I covet my neighbor’s beads and trinkets” isn’t primarily at fault for coveting. His main problem is that he’s focussing on beads and trinkets.

  9. Mathew on July 21, 2006 at 5:37 pm

    If it will help to provoke a furor, I’ll cop to not letting my wife buy a flat screen TV, much less a HDTV. And she makes more money than I do.

  10. Geoff J on July 21, 2006 at 6:18 pm

    I tend to agree with DKL that comparing is not a real problem. Coveting is a problem; envying is a problem; but comparing itself is not a problem. We can only measure where we stand in the universe via comparing (comparing ourselves to God for instance) so we could not progress without our ability to compare.

    I think it is related (or perhaps the same thing as) judging. Joseph changed that scripture to:

    JST Matt. 7: 1-2 Now these are the words which Jesus taught his disciples that they should say unto the people. Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged: but judge righteous judgment.

    So judging (like comparing) is not the problem; unrighteous judging is the problem.

  11. Michael McBride on July 21, 2006 at 7:08 pm

    GST #2: I’ve heard funnier jokes from other people. :)

  12. queuno on July 21, 2006 at 7:21 pm

    I found I became happier once I removed myself from the house-size, car-type, bank account-depth comparison game. I feel genuinely happy for my friends who just built a new Monstrosity of a house, and I enjoy their pool when they invite us over. But, I no longer worry about how I can have one like that.

    Lately, I’ve been focusing on what missions I’ll (hopefully) be able to serve when I retire. That way, my temporal focus is on channeling my resources into preparation for that day. That doesn’t give you much time to compare yourself against anyone else.

    Although, a wise person told me you should only compare yourself against people better than you. :)

  13. gst on July 21, 2006 at 7:30 pm

    Mike, this post is about comparing yourself to other people. Stay on target.

  14. Michael McBride on July 21, 2006 at 8:08 pm

    GST, I’ve moved beyond comparing myself to others. I now just compare people with other people.

  15. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 21, 2006 at 8:16 pm

    how well you do relative to your friends and neighbors does

    I’ve noticed that time after time in places I’ve lived. It is a good point, and one children should pay attention to.

  16. Michael McBride on July 21, 2006 at 8:16 pm

    I think some useful distinctions have been made in various comments (DKL, Mark, M&M, and more–sorry if I left you out here). Coveting should be distinguished from a more generic comparing. In one sense, coveting is upward looking–looking at someone who has a better achievement. Yet, there can also be a prideful downward comparisons that are just as bad.

    Queuno #12 “a wise person told me you should only compare yourself against people better than you.” So what do you make of this quote in light of this conversation? Why should you only make upward comparisons?

  17. Téa on July 21, 2006 at 8:31 pm

    Coveting often involves a sense of entitlement. When we start comparing ourselves to others with attitudes like
    “I deserve what they have”
    “I deserve what they have more than they do”
    “I have because I deserve it and they don’t have because they don’t deserve it”
    I find it more dangerous than other forms of comparison. I agree that coveting and entitlement work both upward and downward, Michael.

  18. Mark Butler on July 21, 2006 at 8:34 pm

    If I haven’t been clear enough I don’t think you should compare mortal *persons* per se at all, but that a comparison of attributes and behaviors, as long as they are considered to be temporal in any negative respect, is a necessary and healthy thing. Compare the sin, not the sinner, where necessary and appropriate, of course. Same thing with compare the blessing not the blessee, and compare the attribute, not the attributed.

    The latter in all three cases with regard to mortals is contrary to the gospel, as the Lord intends to cleanse virtually all mankind from sin in the process of time, and blessings and worthy attributes are essentially never the sole responsibility of the blessee and the attributed – but are largely a divine, familial, and cultural inheritance.

    Notice how virtually every prophecy of evil in the Bible is conditional – that is a consequence of the fact that the Lord expects that sin is a temporal, and not an eternal condition. Repent and be saved, continue in sin and suffer the consequence. Notice also how often in the scriptures the Lord gives people two names, a righteous name, and a wicked name, their choice.

  19. queuno on July 21, 2006 at 10:57 pm

    Re 16’s question about my 12 …

    The person who told me that was being a little tongue-in-cheek, but his point was — it’s virtually impossible NOT to make the comparison — it’s instinctive. What we can do is how we can control our own reaction to the comparison. We cannot avoid the comparison, but we can avoid the coveting. When we (instinctively) compare ourselves against others, we should throw out results that put us on top of someone else (because it only results in problems if we dwell on them) and focus on the results that put us beneath other people. If we continually tell ourselves, “OK, I’m still not as __________ as Joe” then Joe becomes a goal to achieve.

  20. Kevin Barney on July 21, 2006 at 11:15 pm

    I didn’t begin to think of myself as “smart” in any way until junior high school, when students were externally differentiated in many ways (the gifted field trip, the early algebra class, etc.). All through grammar school I perceived myself as being of only average intelligence. Sure, I got almost all As, but I just assumed that everyone got mostly As.

  21. Eric Russell on July 22, 2006 at 12:12 am

    It’s not the action that matters but the motive. Comparing oneself to others with pride is wrong, comparing oneself to others with humility is good.

  22. DKL on July 22, 2006 at 1:01 am

    Mathew If it will help to provoke a furor, I’ll cop to not letting my wife buy a flat screen TV, much less a HDTV.

    Monster!

  23. Michael McBride on July 22, 2006 at 2:51 am

    Stephen M. #19: Your comment reminded me of thoughts I frequently have about my children. I live in faculty housing surrouned by neighborhoods of tremendous wealth. My children will grow up seeing massive amounts of consumption. I wonder how I will teach them not to covet. This is actually a concern I’ve heard expressed by other people I know here.

    Queuno #19: The flip side of the upward comparison is that it can reinforce unhealthy feelings of unworthiness and, at worst, depression. I understand this is a problem for many LDS women who feel like they never quite live up the ideal Mormon mother image. It’s sort of like guilt. Guilt can be good if it leads you to change, but it can be debilitating if it only causes depression.

    Kevin #20: I guess you were an average gifted person. :) One of the interesting thigns about comparisons is that people have different reference groups to which they compare. If you compare yourself to other gifted students, you’re average. But if you compare yourself to all students, you’re above average.

  24. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 22, 2006 at 3:50 pm

    Michael McBride — an interesting question. I live in Plano, Texas, but a rational part of town. We made the decision when my wife finished graduate school not to move because we liked the ward and the people — which I think kind of surprised many people who expected we would move out.

    But, had we lived in the more expensive part of town, I’m not sure how I’d be teaching my children to adjust.

    It is a real issue.

  25. Geoff J on July 22, 2006 at 7:37 pm

    I think Eric Russell hit the nail on the head in #21. We cannot avoid comparing (in one way or another) all day every day in mortality — it is the only way we get any sense of bearing in life. But our motivations for thoughts, words, and deeds are within our control and when we think, speak, or act when motivated by envy or pride or covetousness we are being wicked. But when our thoughts, words, and deeds are motivated by charity (the pure love of Christ) we are being righteous. I believe this one of the primary meanings of the saying “charity never faileth“.

  26. Matt Evans on July 22, 2006 at 8:01 pm

    From the essay that has most influenced me, by C. S. Lewis:

    Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If every one else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.

  27. Noel on July 22, 2006 at 11:28 pm

    Sometimes people work for things that think make them happy and contented but there is a price. I work with people who both they and their partner have jobs, they have a 4 wheel drive and a five bedroom house etc. She leaves home to pick up her kids and goes home to feed them , do a wash and have time for kids. I am time rich, I managed on one wage to get a house, braces for my kids , two of whom went to University. My home is basic, comfortable and we have all we need. When we stop comparing we can not be jealous of those who have more or look down on those who have less.

  28. Michael McBride on July 23, 2006 at 1:48 am

    Matt #26: I like the CS Lewis quote, although I guess he’s thinking only of the bad type of pride. I think a person can have a good kind of pride for a job well-done.

    On the other hand, this may explain what God likes having Satan around. If there was not bad guy, God wouldn’t seem so good! :)

    Stephen M. #24 and Noel #27. My wife and I have talked about how we’ll restrain our childrens’ consumption. I don’t think my parents didn’t have this same problem when I was a child because they didn’t have money and credit cards weren’t yet so popular. But my wife and I will be more financially comfortable. I think we’ll have to be very deliberate in controlling our children’s consumption in addition to teaching them not to covet.

  29. Matt Evans on July 23, 2006 at 2:12 am

    Michael, this is Lewis’s answer to “job well-done”:

    Pleasure in being praised is not Pride. The child who is patted on the back for doing a lesson well, the woman whose beauty is praised by her lover, the saved soul to whom Christ says “Well done,� are pleased and ought to be. For here the pleasure lies not in what you are but in the fact that you have pleased someone you wanted (and rightly wanted) to please. The trouble begins when you pass from thinking, “I have pleased him; all is well,� to thinking, “What a fine person I must be to have done it.� The more you delight in yourself and the less you delight in the praise, the worse you are becoming. When you delight wholly in yourself and do not care about the praise at all, you have reached the bottom. That is why vanity, though it is the sort of Pride which shows most on the surface, is really the least bad and most pardonable sort. The vain person wants praise, applause, admiration, too much and is always angling for it. It is a fault, but a childlike and even (in an odd way) a humble fault. It shows that you are not yet completely contented with your own admiration. You value other people enough to want them to look at you. You are, in fact, still human. The real black, diabolical Pride comes when you look down on others so much that you do not care what they think of you. Of course, it is very right, and often our duty, not to care what people think of us, if we do so for the right reason; namely, because we care so incomparably more what God thinks. But the Proud man has a different reason for not caring. He says “Why should I care for the applause of that rabble as if their opinion were of value, am I the sort of man to blush with pleasure at a compliment like some chit of a girl at her first dance? No, I am an integrated, adult personality. All I have done has been done to satisfy my own ideals — or my artistic conscience — or the traditions of my family — or, in a word, because I’m That Kind of Chap. If the mob like it, let them. They’re nothing to me.�

  30. gst on July 23, 2006 at 10:50 am

    Stephen M. (Ethesis): my parents live in one of the irrational parts of Plano. I’ll have to remember to look down on you next time I’m there!

  31. Rosalynde Welch on July 23, 2006 at 4:02 pm

    “the woman whose beauty is praised by her lover”

    Just now my daughter asked me why the princess on the cover of her subtraction workbook was wearing gloves. I told her it was just a style of clothing that women wore in the olden days. “So they could impress the males and they [the males] would want to marry them [the women]?” she asked. I decided to try to make it a teaching moment, so I asked her if there were more important things than gloves that one should look for in a marriage partner, and after she made it clear that she would NEVER marry anybody who smoked or didn’t wear a blue suit, we agreed that honesty and kindness were more important assets in a wife than long white gloves.

    This may be the first time I’ve knowingly misled my daughter, since I’m pretty sure she had it right the first time.

  32. Seth R. on July 23, 2006 at 4:30 pm

    Comparisons become evil when they are left as your ONLY, or your PRIMARY, source of information about life.

    Comparison is great as a supplement. But it is incredibly harmful as factfinder #1.

  33. Seth R. on July 23, 2006 at 4:37 pm

    “Never believe your own press.”

    Craig Newmark (founder of Craigslist)

  34. Rosalynde Welch on July 23, 2006 at 4:04 pm

    Which was my oblique and ranty way of wondering whether there’s a difference, morally or psychologically, in making comparisons based on factors that are in or out of individual control, effort or luck. Lewis seems to treat both cases equally, but it’s my hunch that the latter may be more insidious.

  35. Michael McBride on July 24, 2006 at 12:16 pm

    Rosalynde #32: “wondering whether there’s a difference, morally or psychologically, in making comparisons based on factors that are in or out of individual control, effort or luck”

    I’ve had this question. I can say from some of my work (pardon the plug) that the comparison effects still work when the forces are largely due to luck. The self-reported happiness of subjects in one of my experiments depended, among other things, on how well they performed relative to others even though they were playing a game of chance in which the outcomes were largely random.

    I would have thought that the comparison effects would be weaker for outcomes less under the person’s control. On the other hand, perhaps there’s a good reason to believe the comparison effects should not differ or should be weaker for outcomes under your control…

  36. Matt Evans on July 25, 2006 at 9:47 am

    “The self-reported happiness of subjects in one of my experiments depended, among other things, on how well they performed relative to others even though they were playing a game of chance in which the outcomes were largely random.”

    Michael, one of my reactions while reading happiness and positive psychology research has been to question the validity of the “self-reported happiness” that people register immediately after playing a game. It seems the subjects would consciously or unconsciously weigh the effect of the game on their happiness even if they are asked to rate only their “general happiness.” Otherwise, what was the purpose of asking them to play a game prior to the question, and not after? Because I don’t think winning a game of luck makes someone “happy” in the sense we’re curious about (everyone likes to win games, even games of chance, in the short term), I think the researchers need to delay their subsequent questions to see if the game really made someone happier (does anyone think people who won a no-stakes game eight weeks ago would self-report greater happiness today?) and not simply to see if people generally prefer winning to losing. Maybe this concern has been addressed, but if so, I haven’t seen it mentioned in the papers I’ve read.

  37. Michael McBride on July 25, 2006 at 11:33 am

    Matt #36. Your concern is totally valid, and I designed my experiment around that very concern. I see now how I misled you in my comment. Sorry about that. Specifically, the experiment treatment consisted of multiple rounds of playing the game of chance. At the end of each round, after learning the outcome of that round, I asked them how satisfied they were with the outcome of that particular round (not how happy they were overall).

    I felt OK using the word happiness in that comment because I believe if I asked how happy (as opposed to satisfied) they were with the outcome of that particular round, I would have gotten similar results, although I need more money to run more experiments to verify that hypothesis. Techically they’re not the same, yet I think in this context it was OK. Also, the developing theory holds that overall life happiness is some sort of aggregation of satisfactions with various life domains, which are themselves aggregations of more minute experiences within those life domains with somewhat similar aspiration and comparison mechaniisms at work. I’d like to test if that is true. My experiment establishes pretty concretely that these comparison effects are at work at the minute experimental outcome level, but more work is needed to show that these are the exact processes that aggregate to the larger overall happiness level.

  38. Andrew J Marchese on January 27, 2008 at 3:33 pm

    Being Around Rich People And What It Can Do For You
    I grew up in a middle class family and I had a very wealthy, close friend who was about my age. He was close for over 10 years and I believed that this had abolished all my material covet process thoughts. He recently moved to an even more fancy part of land just outside of town with barn animals, horses, 40 acres, 2 Personal All Terrain Vehicles, A loft for his bedroom and all that fancy stuff. I stop by over there only about once a week but I think that is it safe to say that if you have questions about your kids growing up around rich people and having immoral thoughts of covet, that there is much to be learned from being around upper class family\’s . I also noticed that a lot of times these family\’s do a lot of work to get all the money they have, and it will give you a different sense of pride beyond money and materialism to know that your parent(s) are around to raise you and teach you good things instead of working for months at a time in far away country\’s.