Social Comparison Orientation and Its Correlates
"Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little."
I’ve been curious about the characteristics of status maximizers.
People who strive constantly and compare themselves quietly with others.
In a 2020 study titled “Kant be Compared: People High in Social Comparison Orientation Make Fewer—Not More—Deontological Decisions in Sacrificial Dilemmas,” researchers investigated how social comparison orientation affects decisions in moral dilemmas.
Social comparison orientation is defined as “the inclination to compare one’s accomplishments, one’s situation, and one’s experiences with those of others.”
Social comparison orientation is measured by how much people agree with statements like “I often compare myself with others with respect to what I have accomplished in life” and “I often compare how I am doing socially (social skills, popularity) with other people.”
The researchers examined whether social comparison orientation might be related to moral judgments.
After completing the social comparison scale, participants in the study then responded to moral dilemmas.
These stories asked whether it would be okay to sacrifice a smaller number of people to save a larger number. For example, participants rated how acceptable it would be to kill 1 injured submarine crew member to preserve oxygen to save 6 other crew members. Similar to trolley problems.
Prior studies have suggested that people high in social comparison are more insecure and preoccupied with how others perceive them.
You might predict that people who are anxious about how others view them would take a strong moral stand and claim that hurting others is always wrong, or something along those lines. Something that would bolster their moral image.
So the result in the study is a little counterintuitive.
The study found that people who score highly on social comparison orientation are more likely to say it was acceptable to sacrifice a smaller number of people to rescue a larger number.
The researchers speculated that high social comparison might reduce emotional concern for others. In a different study, they asked a new set of participants to respond to the social comparison scale and moral dilemmas.
Researchers also asked the participants to complete a psychopathy scale.
The scale asks participants how much they agree with statements like “I’ll say anything to get what I want,” and “Payback needs to be quick and nasty.”
Results revealed that social comparison orientation was significantly correlated with psychopathy. In other words, people who habitually compare themselves with others are more likely to have psychopathic traits (selfishness, callousness, cynicism).
And psychopathy, in turn, was associated with more comfort with sacrificing a few to save many.
Social comparison is also associated with narcissism. People prone to comparing themselves with others agree more strongly with statements such as “I am great” and “Other people are worth nothing.”
Some years ago I was sitting in a philosophy seminar and the professor asked the 16 students how many of us were utilitarians (that is, how many of us would sacrifice a smaller number of people to save a larger number, or generally believe that the ends justify the means). Fourteen out of 16 raised their hands. Later, I learned that psychopaths are overrepresented among college students by a factor of four. Roughly two percent of the general population are psychopaths, compared with 8 percent of college students.
About two years after that class, some college friends and I watched the Avengers movie where Thanos snaps his fingers and exterminates half of life in the universe. After the movie, one guy in our group said “I hate how movies always make utilitarians seem evil.”
Other studies find that people who frequently compare themselves with others are more likely to experience malicious envy.
They tend to agree with statements like “If other people have something that I want for myself, I wish to take it away from them” and “Seeing other people’s achievements makes me resent them.”
I was also curious about how people prone to social comparison think about absolute compared to relative advantages. I found a paper in which researchers looked at this question.
They posed questions with binary answers to participants. The questionnaire contained items like:
A. You have 2 weeks of vacation; others have 1 week
B. You have 4 weeks of vacation; others have 8 weeks
By now, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that people who are high on social comparison are more likely to choose option A.
Social comparers prefer to make everyone else worse off, if it means they will obtain a relative advantage.
Also unsurprisingly, social comparison was highly correlated with competitiveness (“I judge my performance on whether I do better than others rather than on just getting a good result”).
Interestingly, researchers have discovered that even controlling for self-esteem, social comparison was associated with feelings of envy, guilt, and regret. In other words, even if two people have the same baseline level of self-esteem, the one who is more prone to social comparison will experience more negative social emotions.
In sum, people who habitually compare themselves with others tend to score highly on:
And high social comparers more willing to:
Sacrifice a smaller number of people “for the greater good”/adhere to utilitarian ethics (like Thanos or Ozymandias)
Forego a larger reward in favor of a smaller one, if it means they’ll have more than others
These people would likely identify with the famous quote from Gore Vidal: “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.”
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