The Perils of Comparative Thinking

“I wept because I had no Porsche, and then I saw a man who had no BMW.”

That’s an ancient proverb, slightly doctored for modern American sensibilities. The point is that, regardless of our life circumstances, we derive our happiness and our disappointment from comparisons with others’ fortunes. Indeed, the human brain seems to be perversely wired for relative judgments, even when the comparisons sabotage our well-being.

Is there any way to avoid the comparison trap? It should be obvious that my successes or failures in life have nothing to do with you, nor do your troubles or good fortunes reflect on me. How can we make meaningful and helpful comparisons, while avoiding maladaptive ones?

New research suggests that, while some comparative thinking may be automatic and irresistible, we may also have the cognitive wherewithal to choose comparisons that make us happier. Psychological scientist Karim Kassam of Carnegie Mellon University has been leading a study of both the perils and possibilities of comparative thinking, to see how we process our misfortunes and protect ourselves against unhappiness—or how we might.

Kassam and his colleagues* figured that people always make the most obvious comparison first, and unhesitatingly. So if I win $100 in a lottery and you win $20, I’m the clear winner, which makes me happy. But what if fortunes reverse? What if you win the $100 and I have to settle for $20? How do I defuse my disappointment, and move ahead without regret?

Kassam explored this question by running his own “lottery” on the streets and in the public parks of Boston. He approached almost 300 pedestrians, and offered them a “scratch-off” lottery ticket. Each ticket had two amounts of money concealed from view—either $7 and $5, or $5 and $3, or $3 and $1. Each volunteer scratched off one or the other, revealing his winnings.  That same volunteer then scratched and revealed the remaining amount, which he would not win. In short, some of the volunteers were “winners” and some were “losers.” Both winners and losers then completed a questionnaire probing their feelings of happiness, disappointment and regret.

The results were not as obvious as you might think. Yes, the players reported more positive emotions when they won more cash, and winners were happier than losers. That’s unsurprising. But as reported on-line in the journal Psychological Science, the researchers also looked at the interaction of winning/losing and dollar amount, and found that only losers’ emotions were affected by the actual amount of cash won. In other words, winners were happy just for winning, while losers found consolation in the amount of their winnings. The obvious comparison didn’t feel good, so the losers moved on to one that did, namely: Even three dollars is better than a dollar, which is better than nothing.

What the losers had done is change benchmarks. Instead of the obvious and disappointing comparison—“I could have won $5 but I only won $3—they switched to an uplifting thought—“I now have $3 that I didn’t have before.”

The most obvious comparison—winning versus losing—is easy and effortless. But Kassam suspected that alternative comparisons are not so effortless—indeed that it may take motivation and mental work to see the bright side of winning just $3. If that’s the case, he figured, it should be possible to experimentally interfere with this rationalization. So that’s what he attempted to do in the lab. He had volunteers sit at a computer that displayed two boxes. When volunteers selected a box, both boxes opened—revealing what they won and what they missed out on. As before, they rated their feelings of happiness, disappointment and regret.

But here’s the twist. The game was rigged, and the volunteers were always losers. Sometimes they won $5 and sometimes $3, but they were always losers by comparison. Some of these losers were required to perform a difficult mental task as they were playing the lottery game—to see if this additional “cognitive load” interfered with the effort to find a happier, more adaptive comparison.

And it did, clearly. As before, the losers found some compensation in their actual winnings—but only if they had the cognitive resources to actively choose that strategy. If they were mentally burdened, the cash in hand didn’t temper their disappointment. They were simply losers, and felt like losers.

This suggests that, while we may have the cognitive tools to steer our brains away from disappointing comparisons, the strategy is not automatic or foolproof. It takes work—and perhaps practice—to keep in mind that our circumstances always compare favorably—to someone, somewhere.

Wray Herbert’s book, On Second Thought, explores the many forms of irrational thinking. Excerpts from his two blogs—“We’re Only Human” and “Full Frontal Psychology”—appear regularly in Scientific American Mind and The Huffington Post.

*Carey Morewedge of Carnegie Mellon; Daniel Gilbert of Harvard; and Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia


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