The Power of Comparison: Tackling 7 Common Mistakes

‘It’s all relative!’ A familiar, throwaway phrase but one with huge relevance to how we assess ourselves, other people and external objects.

The fact is we’re hard wired to make comparisons as a way of bringing meaning to the world around us and how we fit into it. But because our need for cognitive efficiency trumps our desire to make accurate comparisons we frequently make the wrong comparisons and/or react inappropriately to their results. This can have profound consequences for our mental health, mood and behaviour as well as the quality of our decisions.

The following are seven errors we commonly commit when comparing and some suggestions how we can do things better.

1. Hurtful ‘upward’ comparisons: When making upward comparisons – comparisons with those we perceive to be better than ourselves – we can easily end up feeling pretty useless. We might think, for example, ‘My colleague seems to have a lot more friends than I do, therefore I can’t be very likeable. There must be something wrong with me.’

This is not what such comparisons are for. Ideally, they should be used to create motivation to improve as well as providing the potential means to do so: ‘I want to be better at making friends. I’ve noticed that he goes out of his way to talk to people, so I’ll try to do more of that myself.’

Unfortunately, changing the way we respond to upward comparisons is easier written than achieved: our thought-processes are often so ingrained that we need to work really hard to adjust them. The good news is that Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is specifically designed to help us do that.

2. Damaging ‘downward’ comparisons: It’s easy to boost our ego by making downward comparisons – comparisons with people worse-off than ourselves. But the effects are temporary and the method perhaps less than desirable. I would suggest that regularly putting others down to feel better about ourselves is akin to a bully, without the use of their physical or verbal intimidation tactics.

A much better way of living is surely to have a sufficient, genuine sense of security and self-confidence not to require the use of downward comparisons to feel better about ourselves. We should still make downward comparisons but mainly to generate empathy for others and to track our progress in life.

3. The grass is always greener: When considering whether to change our lives in an important regard we’ll often compare our current unsatisfactory situation with a rose-tinted version of a new situation, biasing the results of our musings. We tend to look for simple, external answers to our discontent – ‘If I change jobs I’m bound to be happier’ for instance – when the real problem may lie within ourselves.

This is not to suggest that change is always bad; far from it. Rather that we should carefully consider the root cause of our dissatisfaction, particularly if the same issues keep recurring, before deciding whether to make the leap.

4. Confusing concepts of relative and absolute: We can share a dinner table with people who eat one portion of fruit and vegetables a day and convince ourselves that by eating two such portions we have a healthy diet. In truth, of course, we just have a slightly healthier one than they do. Alternatively, the price of a product may have been cut leading us to believe that it’s cheap and we must buy it. In reality, however, there could still be similar products available at even lower prices.

By confusing relative concepts, such as ‘healthier’ and ‘cheaper’, with absolute ones (‘healthy’ and ‘cheap’) we frequently justify a course of action that is still far from ideal. We should try to avoid this by making broader, more appropriate comparisons.

5. Reaching the wrong conclusions about others. Just as the conclusions we reach about ourselves can be distorted, depending on who we happen to compare ourselves with, the same is true of how we judge other people. When recruiting, for example, we’ll probably compare each candidate with the other candidates and select ‘the best’ of the bunch. But what if we’re choosing from the wrong pool of people to begin with?

Meanwhile, when gambling on a particular sporting outcome we’re frequently surprised by the failure of a team or sportsperson to replicate what they’ve done before. This is often because our judgement was determined by who they were previously competing against.

Simply by being more aware of these types of mistakes it’s possible improve the quality of our decision making.

6. Fearing loss more than embracing possible gains: Behavioural economists have emphatically demonstrated that to be willing to make an investment where we risk losing money the odds need to be heavily stacked in our favour. In other words, we dislike losses much more than we enjoy gains. It’s suggested that this has an evolutionary explanation – there is a better chance of survival by treating threats as more important than opportunities.

The trouble is this is generally unhelpful in the modern world. Not only does it make us overly cautious when deciding where to invest, but, far more importantly, it can dictate our whole approach to life. We’re often unwilling to move outside our narrow comfort zone for fear of failure, living an unfulfilled life as a consequence. If we can even up our internal scales between threat and opportunity we will achieve and experience a great deal more.

7. ‘Illusory superiority’: It’s well known that most of us (typically 80-90%) believe that we’re better than average drivers! Indeed a US study revealed that even when using their phone to text and email, a remarkable 80% of drivers still thought they were ‘average’ or ‘above average’.

Such illusory superiority has been uncovered in many different areas and psychologists have shown that it’s more likely to occur when tasks are perceived to be ‘easy’. But if we really think driving is easy are we more or less likely to make mistakes? I’ll leave it to you to answer that one.

In short, the comparisons we make and the way we react to their results are fundamental to our lives and the way we live them. It is indeed ‘all relative’. By acknowledging this and taking action where appropriate we can dramatically improve our situation.

Robert Prior has recently published a book entitled The Power of Comparison: A Manual For Better Living. In it he discusses the problems comparisons cause, both for our mental health and the everyday decisions we make, as well as how to improve them. CBT techniques are detailed as a means to help conquer feelings of inferiority and superiority.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books–written by men–barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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