How Our Brains Are Hardwired to Compare

A LinkedIn doomscroll leads to an exploration of judgement, happiness and the comparison trap.

Article by Joseph Lew

GUCCI TWINSIdentical twins walk the runway at Gucci's Spring Summer 23 show, hosted at Milan Fashion Week. Photography courtesy Gucci.

My latest unhealthy obsession is browsing LinkedIn before bed. But for a platform that boasts functionality, I only use it for the one feature. Two little heads sit at the top of my screen, with the words ‘My Network’ written below. My fingers are drawn to the tab instinctively and before I know it, many circular headshots fill my screen. I click through the profiles, some shorter, some longer, pausing to scan where people are working, what date they graduated, how many years of experience they have. My night always ends the same way: I go to bed feeling inadequate in comparison.

Back in the ‘90s, Richard Easterlin, an economics professor at the University of Pennsylvania conducted analysis of almost 25 years’ worth of happiness data from the United States. He presumed that as there was a direct correlation between happiness and income, changes to income over time would lead to greater levels of wellbeing. Instead he discovered a paradox: despite a pattern of steadily increasing income wealth, the average happiness levels in the country had barely changed.

“It’s not to do with absolute wealth, it’s about relative wealth,” says Nichola Raihani, a social researcher and author of “The Social Instinct: How Cooperation Shaped the World”. “Feeling that you’re doing a little bit better than your peers is associated with increased wellbeing, and conversely, feeling you’re doing worse than other people in society is associated with reduced wellbeing.” As Raihani explains, it’s all about comparative positioning. Easterlin’s Paradox shows us that we’re more concerned with whether we’re sitting in a better spot than someone else, than whether we have a seat in the first place.

Although Easterlin’s research focuses on income, our tendency to overlook our absolute position in favour of a relative one can be found everywhere. Late last year when reality TV star and beauty entrepreneur Kylie Jenner confirmed her second pregnancy, I spiralled. My thought process went along the lines of ‘she’s only three years older than me and she’s already having her second child, and she’s got two children and I have none’. For a brief moment, I had conveniently forgotten that I didn’t really even want children in the first place. When we’re confronted with surface level portrayals of people’s successes and achievements on social media, it’s easy to feel inadequate. But perhaps this comparison trap is no fault of my own.

Although conceptions of what is considered fair may be shaped by our cultural upbringing, the rejection of unequal outcomes appears to be universal. In a 2015 study, pairs of children from across Canada, India, Mexico, Peru, Senegal, Uganda, and the United States were given the same task: to sit across from each other while treats were placed before them in uneven portions. One of the children in the pair would be assigned the choice of either pulling a green handle to accept the allocated portions, or pulling a red handle to reject them, meaning neither child would get anything. In all seven countries, children would opt for the red.

The answer to why our comparative judgement transcends culture may lie in the way our species operates. According to Raihani, as we evolved collaboratively, social comparison was a means for us to monitor our status within society, and to preserve our place amongst potential competitors. She refers to the example of the Efe pygmies, a hunter-gatherer people living within the Ituri Rainforest of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who share meat in a meritocratic way — “the hunter who shoots the first arrow gets most of the meat, followed by the person whose dog chased the prey, and so on”. By being able to recognise and reject unfair outcomes humans were able to ensure better chances of survival for ourselves and our offspring, from greater allocations of food to lower birth mortality rates.

In footage from a TED Talk published in 2011, a scientist stands in front of a rectangular enclosure, separated into two sections by a wire panel, each housing small brown capuchin monkey. The monkeys have been trained to hand the scientist a rock through circular cut-outs in the clear plexiglass screen in exchange for a food item, either a piece of cucumber or a grape — they prefer the grape. The monkey on the left performs the exchange and is rewarded with a piece of cucumber. The one on the right follows, but it receives a grape instead. The monkey on the left repeats, and once again, is rewarded with a cucumber. He holds the cucumber to his mouth, looks to the other monkey, then tosses the cucumber back at the scientist before rattling the screen. This repeats itself.

This humorous short video is central to the debate of whether social comparison is limited to the remit of the human species. Although some researchers use this video as evidence of the behaviour across species, Raihani disagrees, noting that conclusions drawn from studies like this are flawed in one big way. “We often project our own human feelings and how we would feel in that situation onto those monkeys,” she says. “You can’t rule out that the monkey basically just sees a grape, and because it knows that a grape is available, it rejects the cucumber.” In other words, until monkeys can speak, it’s impossible to know whether the behaviour is motivated by relative wealth rather than absolute wealth.

For humans, even in today’s society, status remains an evolutionarily relevant currency. When we’re doom-scrolling through LinkedIn, Raihani explains we’re subconsciously creating a mental hierarchy, enabling us to monitor how we fit in relative to others within our social circles. Social comparison allows us to evaluate our social networks, and determine which relationships serve us and which don’t. “Keeping tabs of ‘do you always end with more than me’ in any interaction is a heuristic that people use to evaluate and to potentially choose interaction partners,” says Raihani. “Those concerns and needs haven’t disappeared just because many of us now live in industrialised societies; our success still massively depends on our ability to work together and working together in a fair way is often the key to having a productive social relationship.”

Being able to recognise the trap of relativity doesn’t protect us from it. Social comparison is ingrained in our human psyche making it as unavoidable as it is universal. But its pertinence in our consciousness serves as a constant reminder of the human condition — an evolutionary blast from the past. And in instances such as this, when my LinkedIn-motivated inadequacy drives me to write an article, I’d like to think social comparison has even greater use than that.