You feel it in the air, but you’ll never see it. It seems to lurk behind every corner, hide within every test score, and thrive in anxiety and hysteria, but really only exists in the mind.
Everyone has a drive to succeed; that’s not the issue. But what happens when the drive to succeed becomes blurred with a thirst to outcompete those around you, to savor their failure as you treasure your triumph? The culture of competition is not a new topic to Monta Vista students, but a scientific take on the psychology of social comparison—the tendency to self-evaluate by comparing ourselves to others —reveals the source of competitive behavior and sheds some light on this inherent determination.
There are three primary components of social comparison theory that combine to explain the relevance of competition to our community. Researchers at the University of Michigan examined the individual and societal factors that contribute to competition, focusing on the idea of performance dimensions: things we compete over and use to compare ourselves to others. They found that concerns for competition in social contexts increase with “the relevance of a performance dimension to the actor, degree of the actor’s similarity to the target, and the actor’s closeness to the target.” In other words, we hone in on academic comparison as the primary source of competition between peers because competition depends on how similar and close we are to our competitors.
For one, the relevance of the performance dimension explains why the weight we place on a factor of comparison is so lucrative for social comparison. One USC study outlines how the significance of a performance dimension changes our motivation for social comparison. It examined children from predominantly low-income African American households and found that those given a graph of median wage information by level of education, from no high school degree through graduate school, were eight times more likely to do extra-credit work than those shown wages of entertainers or athletes. Because the students realized the importance of academic performance and education in shaping future success, they were more motivated to focus on their school work. Considering that we place such great emphasis on the college admissions game, for one, it becomes a performance dimension that intensifies social comparison after each semester, AP exam, and ultimately, admissions email.
In the case of similarity between competitors, another experiment found that competitive tendencies increase with the degree of performance similarity with a rival. They had subjects participate in a series of pattern identification tests, whose results were later revealed to similar subjects like minority groups and those in the same profession, after which participants’ results improved as they tried to outcompete those similar to them. This examination of “horizontal hostility,” in which competition increases amongst adversaries at the same level, showed that comparison concerns increase among similar groups.
Now in our case, colleges tout messages of diversity and holistic considerations, creating an unhealthy dependency on comparing ourselves with our peers while we ironically become increasingly similar to them. Because in today’s environment, where it seems nearly everyone has a research position, officership, or published poetry, the need to diversify becomes yet another platform for social comparison.
On the Home Front
You’re probably all familiar with the “What did you get?” mindset so frequently associated with Monta Vista’s ‘special’ culture. However, social comparison theory allows us to view it in a uniquely scientific light, as the closeness of competitors is the final mechanism of competition motivated by our society. A study of University of Chicago undergraduates compared self-reported estimates of popularity to those offered by friends, and found that participants were more likely to make self-serving comparisons involving their popularity when the target of comparison was a friend, as opposed to just another participant. They concluded that people feel more threatened by the success of their friends than by that of strangers.
We all know that there is an end to that yellow brick road called high school, and come to think that for some people, it all comes down to acceptances and rejections. When such pressure is placed on a single outcome, it’s no surprise that students find it hard to remain free of the mass hysteria that takes the form of numbers, officer positions, and of course, the ever-enticing College Confidential, the hysterical discussion forum encompassing everything from “chance me” admission threads to illegal discussions of this month’s SAT questions.
One student testifies to the debilitating impacts of such forums, stating, “I initially turned to the College Confidential forum for the validation aspect… but after seeing what amazing things other people had done, it really took a toll on my confidence and made me even more paranoid about my future.” The student’s response sheds light on the debilitating impact that social comparison, something that is often perceived as a benefit at first, can ultimately have on mental health. Media research demonstrates that social comparison creates a vicious cycle that not only enhances insecurity and hopelessness, but also makes people use the same poison as an antidote, bringing themselves up after a failure by putting others down.
Cracking the Code
Luckily, this issue is avoidable once we realize the negative impacts of excessive competition. As Psychology Today writes, social comparison is largely idealized and fails to recognize the reality in our surroundings. While it seems like a long-standing Monta Vista institution, with volatile doses of obsession and paranoia, the stress in our environment festers beyond what it actually is. When we solely examine the extreme negatives or positives of our ‘competitors,’ it either promotes narcissism or over-idealism, neglecting to recognize the flaws and difficulties that are common to all of us.
Thus, the inherent flaw of social comparison becomes the source of our hope and resilience. With its reliance on the influence of others, social comparison cannot accommodate for our own motivation. After all, self-evaluation in comparison to others can be achieved passively without any action or growth. But if social comparison has been a part of the human identity for millennia, any progress and change we have been able to make was only achieved by self-enhancement, the same quality that encourages us to challenge societal norms, strive for internal improvement, and simply, fight another day.