Think Before Choosing Heroes: Comparison Standards, Contentment, and Performance

Think Before Choosing Heroes- ComparisonWhether you think of yourself as a pack animal or a lone wolf, chances are you are constantly looking to the people around you as models of how to behave and succeed. From the time we’re babies, we use other people as examples to learn from. This is captured in Albert Bandura’s social learning theory. I would argue that other people, much like our own baseline behavior from tracking activity or eating, provides a metric to gauge competence.

That said, looking to other people for examples can have negative consequences, especially when we pick the best and brightest examplars to model ourselves on.

Performance Effects

Who we choose to compare ourselves to influences how we perform. This makes some intuitive sense; it’s probably why parents like their kids to pal around with academically successful, mild-mannered friends who can be “good influences.” But what might not be as intuitive is the fact that if we set our comparison standard too high, our performance might actually suffer as a result.

One study that inspired me as an undergraduate was Dijksterhuis, Spears, and colleagues’ (1998) work showing that having people think about professors led to them doing better on a general knowledge test than when they thought about supermodels. The implication is that thinking about someone smart made you, at least in the moment, show off your own smarts. The interesting part was that when people were asked to think about Albert Einstein (a specific and particularly brilliant professor) or Claudia Schiffer (a specific and particularly beautiful supermodel), these effects disappeared. In fact, in another set of studies, using these exemplars led people to have opposite performance effects (worse scores if you thought about Einstein, and better ones if you thought about poor Claudia, whose IQ is unknown; Dijksterhuis, van Knippenberg, et al., 1998).

Dijksterhuis and colleagues concluded that comparing ourselves to a general category of people can help our performance, but once you start to think about specific superstars, you activate that “not like me” alarm light in your brain. In essence, by comparing yourself to someone who is exceptional, you damage your own performance.

(It’s worth noting that another research team led by David Shanks recently and famously failed to replicate the Dijksterhuis effects. This obviously weakens the standing of the original research. However, I think there’s still merit when thinking about your daily life and how you perform whether it’s better to model yourself after a type of person whose ranks you might eventually join, versus a specific individual who you will never be exactly like.)

The key seems to be finding the line between inspiration and intimidation. A good role model performs slightly better than we do, at a level that may be achievable with hard work and practice (this is the concept marketers often exploit with the “aspirational target.”). Less desirable is the superman or woman whose accomplishments are the product of exceptional genius or skill. I might look to a somewhat faster runner as a comparison point, but comparing myself to Kara Goucher is a recipe for self-loathing.

One cool thing is that over time, as you improve your own performance or progress along a continuum of achievements, you can look to new role models who are slightly more accomplished at each level.

Contentment Effects

Comparing ourselves to awesome others may also sabotage our feelings of contentment. Chances are, anything I’ve got going on is not as amazing as what I think someone else has, so making the comparison is just going to leave me lusting for something other than what I have.

In Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book The Myths of Happiness, she points out that comparing your professional reality to a dream job is a fast track to discontentment. Rather, she recommends, compare your current situation to a prior job, or to a friend in a slightly less desirable job than yours. This downward comparison will help increase your gratitude for your own position. It’s an interesting piece of advice, and definitely one I think is doable.

Another thing to keep in mind when comparing yourself with other people is that most folks choose not to air their dirty laundry too widely. That means the Facebook friend with the Pinterest projects and the movie star hair is not posting statuses about her fight with her husband or being underemployed. It’s a classic example of the social comparison bias, where we forget that we’re not privy to the hardships that others suffer. It’s important to remind ourselves that we don’t know what anyone else is going through, and so we can’t feel bad about our own circumstances in comparison to others’.

Things I Envy Anyway

Even knowing that it’s not the healthiest strategy, there are still people I can’t help comparing myself to and coming up short. A brief list:

  • People with more obedient hair than mine, particularly if they also have curls.
  • People around my age who have published books.
  • Anyone who has a gorgeous, huge kitchen with lots of cabinet and counter space. Bonus points if they also live in a city, and mega-bonus points if they live in Boston.
  • The naturally athletically gifted. Again, bonus points if they are also naturally slim and can eat anything they want.
  • Multi-lingual people.

My challenge moving forward is to try to emulate these people without slagging on myself for not being in their league yet (or possibly ever, in the case of the natural athleticism). Taking steps toward being more like those ideals, like writing on my blog or practicing languages on Duolingo, are in the context of my journey and making my own version of success, rather than copying someone else’s.

Now to remember that!


Dijksterhuis, A., & van Knippenberg, A. (1998). The relation between perception and behavior, or how to win a game of Trivial Pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74: 865–877. doi: 10.1037//0022-3514.74.4.865

Dijksterhuis, A., Spears, R., Postmes, T., Stapel, D.A., Koomen, W., et al. (1998) Seeing one thing and doing another: Contrast effects in automatic behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75: 862–871. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.75.4.862

Shanks, D. R., et al. (2013).  Priming intelligent behavior: An elusive phenomenon. PLoS One, 8(4):e56515.  doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0056515