Let’s get a few things straight. Comparing yourself to others is essential if you want to be happy, motivated, and content. It isn’t foolish, harmful, or dangerous, and it won’t rob you of happiness. There are occasions when it certainly can be counterproductive. But so can drinking several gallons of orange juice and sticking a cotton swab too far into your ear. Fear not; social comparison is completely natural—in fact, your brain will hate you if you don’t do it.
“Comparison is the thief of joy”
Don’t get us wrong. The intention behind this advice is reasonable: Don’t look to others to validate your sense of self, try to avoid perceiving yourself as inferior or unworthy, and when other people win, succeed, or look happy, it doesn’t mean you have to lose, suck, or be miserable. We get it.
But what these self-affirming egocentric-avoid-negativity-at-all-costs-but-live-in-denial philosophies of life fail to point out is that you’re going to do it anyway. It’s as natural as peeing in the shower (Oh, c’mon . . . ). The trick is knowing how and when to use the inevitability of social comparison to become happier, faster, and grittier. Otherwise you’ll just end up envious and resentful that everyone seems happier and more exciting than you.
If you’re a 6, then I’m an 8
Your brain is biologically wired to compare yourself to others. This means that you can’t actually stop peeking at others, even if you tried to. Your limbic system, or “Chimp” brain is driven by psychological urges such as power, ego, acceptance, recognition, security, and inquisitiveness. Your Chimp is constantly scanning the world for data that helps determine where you sit in the social hierarchies of attractiveness, awesomeness, athleticism, and aptitude. And that’s just the A’s.
By comparing yourself to others, you can see how your attributes stack up. If you’re forced to make a decision about whether to fight, hide, run, or hump, you had better know if you stand a chance of pulling it off. Even when survival isn’t at stake, attribute comparison helps us make better decisions about which groups to join or avoid, which sexual partner to pursue, and what situations are likely to make us happy or miserable. If there’s no social comparison, you risk being left on the sidelines out of fear or, worse, in the thick of the action but ill-equipped to cope with people who have more skill, more swagger and, well, just about more of everything than you. A few million years ago, both scenarios would have left you dead, but now they just make you miserable.
Psychologists have spent decades studying social comparison, and their conclusions are invariably the same: People are virtually incapable of judging their own abilities without reference to some criteria, especially the abilities of others. Think of an occasion when you got some novel data about yourself or something you’ve done. Perhaps it was when you learned that you could hold 200 watts for 20 minutes on the bike, you have 23% body fat, or that you take 6,388 steps per day.
If your first question is What does this mean?, your second question will almost certainly be Is that good? You immediately claw for a reference point. This is often called benchmarking, and we are all driven to do it because it gives meaning to our abilities. Remember that the human brain is wired to search for meaning in everything, even blathering balderdash. Fortunately, benchmarking is really easy in endurance sport. There are times, finish results, and three podium steps for every race.
People who participate in competitive sports usually find social comparison pretty rewarding, though they might not know it, admit it, or even realize the subtle ways that they do it.  Some people seem to enjoy the thrill of competition from an early age. Lesley entered every single race she could as a kid. Or at least as many as her increasingly exhausted parents could tolerate. If she wasn’t trying to manically out-sprint other kids in the tots-trot, she would be challenging her friend’s dads to eating competitions. (Her talent at inhaling food emerged at the age of two.) She would take on all comers at anything—she didn’t care who; she just wanted to go head-to-head.
Because endurance sports give Lesley very clear and objective criteria about how she stacks up to others, competing makes her feel like a pig in shit. It’s important to point out that the power of competitive social comparison is most potent when you’re stacking up against people whose abilities are within reach of yours. After all, no one gets a kick out of beating people who posed no status threat to you in the first place (cue thoughts of racing against your mum or a top pro).
Even in sports known to be inherently explorative and self-referential like big-wall climbing, mountaineering, and recreational skiing, we can find breadcrumbs of social comparison in the stats: completions of climbs with different technical ratings, number of summits without oxygen, the type of ski runs you’re competent at, and so on. Even the most noncompetitive version of a sport or activity will often be adapted to create an illusion of comparison—as is the case when one person assumes the role of two different players during a solo game of pool, billiards, or darts. Human versus human. It’s what we do.
It is possible to go overboard in the hunt for social comparison information. Do too much of it, and your brain will throw a tantrum because it feels bullied. No one appreciates constantly hearing about how fast or fit other people are. I learned this the hard way when, approaching the 2016 XTERRA World Championships, I thought that giving Lesley regular updates about Flora Duffy, her nemesis in off-road triathlon, would be a good idea. Turns out it wasn’t. Lesley told me to shut the f*ck up about her. Oops.
Self-presentation as a performance
Scouting the opposition is only part of the equation for determining your social standing. After all, your social standing is also determined by how others see you—or more correctly, how you think they see you. This means that your brain also needs to sell itself and the attributes and abilities of the body it lives in. Psychologists call this self-presentation, and how we actually go about doing it is called impression management.
Technically speaking, impression management refers to conscious and subconscious attempts to influence the perceptions of other people about an object or thing (in this case, you) by regulating and controlling information during social interaction. Impression management is often compared to running your own broadcast channel that tries to tell the world how attractive, awesome, athletic, and smart you are, among other things.
However, impression management isn’t necessarily pretense; it’s just “selective nondisclosure”—because you will leave out certain, ahem, details so that you are portrayed in a way that is consistent with how you see (or want to see) yourself. For most athletes, this is fast, fit, competent, smart, exciting, fun, and shaggable, which may be a frequent departure from how you feel in real life (IRL).
When you’re on the receiving end of someone else’s in-your-face impression management, it’s annoying precisely because you’re on the opposing team. Shrinks call this a self-evaluation threat. It sends the message that their social standing is higher than yours because they’re fitter, leaner, faster, grittier, happier (need we go on?) than you. And it’s f*cking irritating.
Sometimes it’s really overt, such as someone telling you literally how great they are. Sometimes it’s less overt but still noticeable—when a person’s anecdotes are only about how they saved the day or were proved right. At other times, impression management can also be really subtle, as in when and where people “check in” on Facebook.
It can be plain nauseating, but only if you know about esoteric rules, such as when to call yourself “Dr.” or add “PhD” after your name (answer: only when that professional capacity is relevant, which it certainly isn’t for a hotel reservation, a credit card, a gym membership, or a personal social media account). Some people prefer to reverse engineer the process entirely by faking inadequacy, in order to fish for compliments or to create a personal handicap, portraying themselves as deficient in order to catch opponents off-guard and gain an advantage.
The one thing we know for certain about impression management is that we all do it—at least to some degree. And make no bones about it: It’s a performance in every sense of the word. Interestingly, research suggests that you’re less likely to do it with your relatives, perhaps because you’d catch shit for doing it and there are genetic reasons not to. Reacting negatively to other people’s blatant impression management is probably also encoded in your DNA at some level. This may be why scientific studies show that humans take great pleasure in seeing other people get knocked down a peg or two, especially if they are considered to have deserved it.
Athletic “truthiness” and why your pants are probably also on fire
Impression management isn’t always about complete and utter honesty. Like advertising, the goal is to shape or change people’s perceptions. In this case, about you. You don’t have to be a sociopath to rationalize away a few misrepresentations of yourself in public. We just can’t help wanting to portray ourselves in a flattering light. Why else would the phrase “you look nothing like your picture” be the most commonly uttered words by members of www.[redacted to stop us being sued].com?
After all, if you want to zoom up a league table of social status, cherry-picking examples of your own awesomeness and broadcasting them to the world seems entirely sensible. For endurance athletes, it’s not even considered lying. After all, you did run 18 miles on Saturday in your new kit and wear a run visor that hides the zit on your forehead but makes your cheekbones pop. And, as luck would have it, you managed to selfie an exhausted but not unattractive pose prior to collapsing. Who cares that your six other runs lasted less than 28 minutes because you were mildly hungover and had the face of a swollen otter and, if the truth be known, you just couldn’t be arsed to run any farther?
Welcome to athletic “truthiness.” Nope, if it’s your broadcast channel, you might as well give ’em the Heisman Trophy reel. If people conclude that being you is wall-to-wall awesome, then who are you to protest? (Your Chimp certainly won’t.)
If the psychological purpose of impression management is to broadcast a version of yourself that influences people’s perceptions in a way that enhances your status (self-presentation), then it’s entirely unrealistic to expect people to hose down the public with things that decrease status—weaknesses, failures, stupidity, and, yes, unflattering photos. That is, of course, unless it suddenly becomes socially advantageous to do exactly that.
For example, showing embarrassment or vulnerability can enhance your status when there is normative adulation to do so (meaning that enough people agree that it’s a good thing). For example, if you completed the ice-bucket challenge, posted on your Facebook wall about dealing with mental illness, or put up pictures of yourself doing something stupid in order to make a point about, well, the importance of being stupid, then it’s still a status-enhancing impression management strategy (despite your good intentions, of course).
We now snort, inject, and inhale impression management
Technology has taken a lot of the effort out of impression management by helping us broadcast truthiness about our abilities and all-around awesomeness. Social media is a particularly grand stage for your performance because an audience is guaranteed if you have an account. With the click of a button, you can instantly pebble-dash your social network with photos, updates, check-ins, plans, trips, experiences, and mood states—the golden currency of impression management.
Strava has built an entire business around athletes’ psychological need to compare themselves to others, and there is ample evidence that no segment of road is too ridiculous for some cyclist, somewhere, to want to claim victory as the fastest person across it. If you want to induce a mild panic attack in Stravaholics, just send them an e-mail with the subject heading: “Uh oh, someone just took your KOM.”
Of course, Facebook is the mother ship of impression management. It is sophisticated software that is used almost exclusively to enhance social status. Even allowing for the fact that people are unlikely to admit that they participate mostly for show and are just as unlikely to know why they’re doing it, the research still indicates that self-presentation and the need to belong are the primary motivations for using Facebook and that many are blissfully unaware that they come across as total tools. It doesn’t help that it can also be addictive because it almost certainly triggers the brain’s dopaminergic reward system.
Regardless of the motives for impression management, you may find it motivating and enjoyable to keep checking on the status of others as well as updating your own—mostly to feed your self-presentation drive. Unfortunately, when impression management is done on a computer you are denied access to the vital nonverbal cues that can be used to detect bullshit. There are now so many scientific studies showing that people craft their self-presentation on Facebook with such precision that it would take an entire book to cover the manipulative art of message crafting, photo editing, tagging, and sharing. Of note is that neuroticism, narcissism, and low levels of self-esteem and self-worth are all associated with higher Facebook use. Jesus, no wonder triathletes love it. Kidding. Sorta.
This excerpt was adapted from The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion with permission from Ulysses Press. For more from Dr. Simon Marshall and Lesley Paterson, listen to Fast Talk episode 158: How to Manage Unwanted Thoughts Through Stoicism.
References & Notes
- Dr. Steve Peters, a British forensic and sport psychiatrist, originated this highly effective Chimp analogy to describe the function of the limbic system. Here’s how it fits: a chimp often acts up, has tantrums, and can be pretty disruptive. But a chimp can also be calm, sleepy, adorable, and cuddly. Most importantly, a chimp doesn’t really mean any harm to you because it doesn’t know better.
- K. A. Martin Ginis, M. Lindwall, and H. Prapavessis, “Who Cares What Other People Think? Self-Presentation in Exercise and Sport,” in Handbook of Sport Psychology, ed. Gershon Tenenbaum and Robert C. Eklund, 3rd ed. (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2007), 136—157.
- M. Leary, Self-Presentation: Impression Management and Interpersonal Behavior (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996).
- In reality, it’s far more complicated. For example, it’s theorized that impression management comprises two constructs: the motivation to be concerned about self-presentation (impression motivation) and the actual way we go about it (impression construction). For simplicity, we do not distinguish between the two constructs here.
- From an evolutionary perspective, the importance of sexual attractiveness matters most to mating preferences when it’s reproductively most relevant—a polite way of saying that young people care more about looking sexy.
- Richard Dawkins, the award-winning evolutionary biologist and author of The Selfish Gene, noted that selfishness and self-promotion are genetically encoded and will lead to behavior that is in one’s self-interest, except possibly when people are related. Selflessness among genetically related individuals (which is common) is theorized to help increase the possibility that the common gene survives, not necessarily the individual. This appears more consistent with contemporary evolutionary theory. And in a comical turn (at least for this book), Dawkins also coined the term “meme” to refer to the fact that some cultural “entities” (e.g., ideas, norms) self-replicate and transmit through groups, which helps ensure their survival. Thus, it is likely that selflessness and other traits are perpetuated with both biological and cultural “help.”
- In 2014, the ice-bucket challenge took the Internet by storm. It involved dumping a bucket of ice and water over your own head, or someone else’s, to promote awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
- A. Nadkarni, and S. G. Hofmann, “Why Do People Use Facebook?” Personality and Individual Differences 52, no. 3 (2012): 243–249; V. Barash et al., “Faceplant: Impression (Mis)management in Facebook Status Updates,” Proceedings of the Fourth International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media 2010, 207–210.
- If you’re interested and have the nerd-chops to cope with it, try this for starters: J. B. Walther, “Selective Self-Presentation in Computer-Mediated Communication: Hyperpersonal Dimensions of Technology, Language, and Cognition,” Computers in Human Behavior 23 (2007): 2538–2557.
- Nadkarni A, Hofmann SG. Why do people use Facebook? Personality and Individual Differences. 2012 Feb;52(3):243–9.