by Allison Aboud Holzer

I recently dog-sat a puppy Pomeranian named Quincy who illustrated to me what Psychologists call Social Comparison Theory. When Quincy arrived, I immediately gave him a bone to help him feel at ease in my home. My Tibetan spaniel named Stella watched inquisitively and immediately made a move to usurp Quincy’s prized bone. Noticing her jealousy I tried to solve the problem by providing her with another bone of the same kind. I called her over to give her the new bone and she happily began chomping away. Problem solved? Not exactly.

Quincy immediately became obsessed with Stella’s new bone. I tried directing his attention back to the lonely bone he had abandoned. With no success, I finally switched the two bones, giving Quincy the new one and Stella his old one. Problem solved now? Not quite.

At this point, both dogs stared longingly at each other’s bones with perfectly delectable bones sitting right between their paws! A case of “bone envy,” for sure! We humans understand this type of envy all too well.

Psychologists who study Social Comparison Theory look at the adaptive benefits and drawbacks of comparing ourselves to others. Usually, social comparison benefits us, by helping us feel more grateful, hopeful, and optimistic. For example, when we compare ourselves to others we believe to be socially better in some way (called “upward social comparison”), then we affiliate with more intelligent, attractive or successful people. As long as we feel similar enough to them, our association with them makes us more elite, enhancing our self-esteem and well-being. However, when we feel particularly vulnerable or our self-esteem is suffering, upward comparison may actually have a downward spiral effect. Like Quincy and Stella, we look at someone else and feel envy for what they have, while ignoring what is in front of us.

In these instances, a different kind of social comparison might provide just the remedy. By comparing ourselves to those worse off than we are, we enhance our self-esteem and feel more grateful for what we have. A research study on the 1992 summer Olympics looked at the emotional responses of bronze and silver medalists. It found that bronze medalists tended to be happier than silver medalists. The study hypothesized that silver medalists compared themselves upward to the gold medalists in a negative way, focusing on “what might have been”; bronze medalists, on the other hand, focused downward on all the other athletes who would go home that day empty handed, feeling grateful for receiving a medal.

Unlike our furry little friends, we humans can think logically and meta-cognitively. This means we can choose when to bring social comparison to our own awareness for our benefit. Rather than suffering from “bone envy” unnecessarily, we can use our feelings of envy as a clue that we might be comparing ourselves to others in an unproductive way.

When this happens, we can compare downward, recognizing the many ways we are doing okay compared to other less fortunate people in the world. This, in turn, helps us feel more grateful and reflect on what we DO have! While “downward social comparison” and “gratitude” might be tough strategies to sell to Quincy and Stella, we humans don’t have to suffer from “bone envy” every day.

** Medvec, V.H., Madey, S., & Gilovich, T. (1995) When Less is More: Counterfactual Thinking and Satisfaction Among Olympic Medalists. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(4), 603–610.

** Suls, J., Martin, R. & Wheeler, L. (2002). Social Comparison: Why, With Whom, and With What Effect? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11 (5), 159-163.