Social Comparisons @ Grad School

For my Online Communities class we read an interesting article by Joanne Wood about social comparisons.  Wood discusses and expands upon the original social comparison theory by Festinger (1954), part of which predicts that “individuals prefer to compare themselves with similar others” (231).  Those comparisons can be upward (comparing yourself to those who are better or better off than you) or downward (worse/worse off), and they can be made on a single focal dimension (who is better at math) or multiple peripheral dimensions (who is better at math, who went to a the best school, and who is the best-looking).  

This article struck me because I have been noticing a fair amount of social comparison happening around me at school …it’s inevitable.  Below is a deconstruction of my experience of social comparison at the U of Michigan School of Information, as posted on the course’s internal discussion forum.


I’m going to bring it right home and talk about comparisons with our SI peers. This might be a touchy-feely Breakfast Club moment, be warned.

This is my first year in grad school, and so throughout the year I’ve been subconsciously trying to figure out how I stack up compared to the other students around me.  What am I good at?  Do I do things the ‘right’ way?  Am I trying hard enough?  This response is natural, according to Festinger’s social comparison theory: “humans have a drive to evaluate their opinions and abilities…they need to know their own capacities and limitations and they must be accurate in their opinions of…other people” (Wood, 231).

So how do I figure out which ‘similar others’ (231) to compare myself to?  I look to my specialization first, and see a group of very talented, technically-oriented high-achievers.  Which makes me wonder – should I be more techy?  Do I need to learn more software tools or programming languages?  It’s a continuous internal dialogue of self-doubt that can be difficult to suppress.  And then there are the awards, scholarships, contests, internships and jobs – all of those benchmarks by which we compare ourselves to others.  Who got the hot internship this summer?  Who won start-up funding? Who’s going to make huge bank at their pimped-out job?  

I subscribe to the similarity hypothesis – I have found myself quite happy for those whose achievements are either out of my realm of interest or way beyond my own ability level…but truth be told, I’ve been slightly envious of those who, given a background and ability similar to my own, have achieved more than me.  The reason I feel this way is because it makes me think that I have not put in enough time or effort…I should just try harder. The trick is to take this sense of inadequacy and turn it into motivation.  Wood says, “one risk of upward comparisons as a vehicle for self-improvement is that they may be demoralizing, because one is forced to face one’s own inferiority” (239).  If you are highly motivated, says Wood, you might be spared these feelings because you feel that you are similar to the successful person, and you might one day achieve similar success.  Therefore you can turn inferiority into inspiration.

What is the effect of social comparison on our community?  I believe it can cause an aura of secrecy and silence around people’s major accomplishments.   I’ve observed that when people are interviewing with a well-known company, they keep it quiet.  That’s understandable I guess – in case you don’t get the job, you don’t want to widely publicize your unsuccessful attempt.  But even when people get the big name job, they seem hesitant to talk about it.  I believe this is a result of others’ comparisons and insecurities.  

For example, let’s say I was just hired at Google (I wasn’t, but let’s just say I was). What will happen if I tell my peers?  According to the similarity hypothesis, some of my peers will be very excited for me, but some others – those to whom I am most similar – will have a hard time controlling their feelings of jealousy.  I have suddenly, by announcing my new position, imposed a comparison on them (as mentioned in the article, ‘environment imposes comparisons on people’) How will they react?  Will they respond with a snide comment?  Will people start treating me differently?  Perhaps I’m silenced by experience with similar situations in the past, or perhaps I’m just unsure of how my peers will react in this context.  The result is that I keep mum about the new job, only letting the news leak to people who I believe will be supportive.  So this is a great example of the way “individuals’ reactions to comparisons are a critical component of comparison processes” (Wood 233)…the community members’ reactions to social comparisons begin to inform the comparison process itself.  

Just a note…I’ve described social comparison here as having a somewhat negative effect on community openness and sharing, but I don’t think comparisons and competition are necessarily bad. Healthy competition raises the bar for everyone, so that the entire community begins to produce higher quality output.  

Wood, Joanne V (1989).  Theory and Research Concerning Social Comparisons of Personal Attributes.  Psychological Bulletin Vol. 106, No. 2.


5 thoughts on “Social Comparisons @ Grad School

  1. I just read half of (I had to return the book to the library!) Mindset:

    It touches on the whole turning inferiority (or failure) into motivation thing. It’s worthwhile to read, though you seem to be in the camp of people with a “growth mindset,” people who tend to work harder instead of giving up.

    I realized that I’m pretty bad at the whole not telling people stuff based on social similarity and whatnot. I just tell everyone when I fail at things. And when I succeed. Social comparison is a double-edged sword. I try and accentuate the positive in everything, myself.

    I guess I should work on being more tactful at saying certain things. But that’s kind of hard when you write everything on your blog!

  2. I think it’s great to share our successes with each other – I would hope that individuals could keep their enviousness under wraps and focus on supporting one another. Learning about others’ awesome jobs and winning submissions [to whatever contest] helps all of us understand how to better compete out there.

    I think this was a slightly controversial post – thanks for engaging, Hung! I will check out that book.

  3. I’m going to add an anonymous comment I received from someone else, just to add to the conversation:

    “I think that a lot of people keep quiet about internships or jobs that they are applying to or interviewing for because they don’t want people to apply to the same jobs at the same time; however, sharing this information could be helpful to everyone at the school as the better positions that everyone gets will overall affect the reputation of the school in the long-term.”

  4. People might also not advertise their successes because they don’t want to share what they did to get the hot job or internship and thus give away a competitive advantage they might have found. Honestly, I think this is more the reason for the secrecy than not wanting to make other people jealous.

  5. Personally, I take great pleasure in hearing about the successes of my fellow students, and in supporting them through their failures when asked to. I think it is possible to have the strength to set aside one’s own feelings of envy and be happy for friends and colleagues who attain highly desirable jobs.

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