Is Comparison Always a Trap?

Is Comparison Always a Trap?

Posted November 17, 2016 by Heather Hutson

Andy Stanley did a sermon series called “The Comparison Trap” and his main point was that you can never win with comparison.  That you would feel jealous of someone who had ‘more’ than you or you would feelgoogle-cave superior to someone who had ‘less’ than you.  Of course, I’m broad stroking a great communicator’s four hour message in three sentences, but you get the gist.

I started thinking about it, what’s the deal with comparison? If it’s so bad for us then why do we do it?  And that sent me to the Google Cave.

Google brought up this study by Emory University scientist, Frans de Waal. He trained these monkeys to exchange smooth stones for slices of cucumber, they seemed pretty ok with the arrangement until he arbitrarily replaced the cucumber slice for a nice juicy grape. Monkeys are like humans in that they would prefer a sweet grape to a boring vegetable.  The monkeys immediately perceived the inequity and went bananas, to coin a phrase.  What de Waal shows us with this study is that social comparison is innate. grapes-and-cucumber-monkeyThink about it, you may be happy as can be with your job for the last decade, enjoying the work,  feeling well compensated and then some kid fresh out of college comes in and gets the same job for the same pay. The same job for the same pay that took you a decade to acquire. You were happy, now you’re dissatisfied.

“Comparison is the thief of joy,” said Theodore Roosevelt.


Compare the smiles on the bronze and silver medalists.

Is it ALWAYS the thief of joy? Are there NO exceptions?  While comparison is a bad habit and has its drawbacks, there could be some benefits. There was a classic psychology study on the Olympics that showed silver medalists were not happy with the silver because they were comparing themselves to the gold while bronze medalists were more content, because they were comparing themselves against the people in 4th, 5th and 6th place.

My fiancee runs the same route in the evenings, there’s another man about his age that runs the same route around the same time. And this other runner is fast.  Whenever he sees this guy, my fiancee becomes more motivated, he pushes himself harder, picks up his pace, tries to pass the other runner.  The comparison leads him to compete.

So the secret here is to find the times when the comparison helps and when it hinders. If comparison is innate, and all humans (and primates) do it, then we need to find a way to harness the power of comparison and hem in its destructive potential.  To use comparison as a way to smug self satisfaction or incomprehensible demoralization is not helpful . It would be more beneficial to seek favorable comparisons if you want to feel happier, and seek unfavorable comparisons if you want to push yourself harder.

If you want to delve a little deeper into the subject there’s a book about this called “ Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both” by Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer.

Have a good show everyone.


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