Comparison is natural and useful: we compare things in the world to understand their value, and comparing ourselves to others gives us useful information about how well we are doing. However, our need for comparison can lead to problems, such as being influenced by salespeople or feeling bad about ourselves from our comparisons with other people.
Salespeople use comparison to increase sales, and one way they do this is by having a decoy – a product that is there just to make another product look better, explains psychologist Dan Ariely. In his book Predictably Irrational, Ariely gives the example of how a bread-making machine company did this. When they introduced their first machine, sales were very low, so, following advice from a marketing company, they also introduced a bigger, more expensive machine as a decoy, and sales of the smaller first machine went up dramatically.
The bigger, more expensive decoy worked because customers could make a decision based on a comparison, Ariely says. He explains that our brains are wired to always look at things in relation to other things; it’s difficult for us to put a value on something without thinking about the advantages it has compared to something else. When the first bread-making machine was introduced, customers didn’t know if it was good or bad or whether they needed one, Ariely explains; but the addition of the bigger machine allowed them to realise that if they did buy one, they’d rather have the smaller one.
This technique of adding a more expensive decoy can be seen in other areas, too. For example, restaurants can increase their profits by adding expensive dishes to a menu, Ariely says. The sales of the added expensive dishes won’t necessarily be high, as most people won’t buy the most expensive item on the menu, but this technique works because many people will order the second-most expensive one, he explains. And his advice for people looking for a romantic partner at a singles event is to bring a decoy friend who looks similar to you but is slightly less attractive.
Another area in which we are constantly making comparisons is between ourselves and other people. This is natural and can be helpful – as wellness coach Elizabeth Scott explains, comparing ourselves helped us to live together in groups in the past, and it can help us evaluate who we are now. Making comparisons like this allows us to notice what we’re good at and appreciate what we have, and it enables us to identify what we’re not good at, which means we can improve ourselves and even be inspired by people who seem to be doing better.
However, it can also be a problem, especially if you feel like you’re not doing well, Scott says. She explains that these comparisons can create stress and leave us feeling like we are falling short in some way, particularly if you have low self-esteem or have had some recent setbacks. Comparison can also reduce our positive feelings towards the people we know, perhaps wanting them to do well but not too well, especially if we aren’t doing well ourselves. When a friend shares their good news, for example, the comparisons we make might leave us feeling a bit of regret about our own situations, Scott says.
Another problem we have with comparing ourselves to others is that we aren’t very good at picking reference points, according to psychologist Laurie Santos. On her Happiness Lab podcast, she explains that when we compare ourselves, we often pick the most extreme reference points in whatever we are comparing. For example, people thinking about their social lives might believe that others are having more fun than they are, because what comes to mind when they make comparisons are the most active, fun-having people that they know, she says.
Scott adds that these problematic comparisons might be increasing with social media. She explains that constant access to images and posts of people doing things that we’re not doing can leave us, ‘wondering if we are doing enough, earning enough, [or] enjoying life enough’. Part of the problem here is that social media isn’t a realistic depiction of people’s lives, as people tend to share only the best parts of themselves. However, it might not be obvious to us that they’re only sharing their highlights, Scott says, which means we can end up comparing our normal lives with people’s best moments.
If, as Ariely says, we are wired to compare, perhaps being aware of the way we do it can help us to avoid problems: we can think more carefully about who or what we are comparing ourselves to and whether we really want that smaller bread-maker or the second-most expensive item on the menu.