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Three Kinds of Comparisons




Excerpted from
If Only; How to Turn Regret Into Opportunity
By Neal Roese, Ph.D.

As we have seen, the counterfactual comparison is one way that we place things in context. Of course, we compare things all the time-an expensive jacket to a cheap jacket, an apple pie to a chocolate cheesecake, even our mother to our father. We can compare things along any number of features-how good they look, how fattening they are, how much love they showed us. But regardless of how many features we think about, it usually boils down to a summary evaluation: an overall opinion of how good or bad something is. Psychologists use the term valence to refer to amounts of goodness versus badness.

Valence is the fundamental basis not only of comparisons, but of quite a lot of our thought processes, from categorization to intention. The reason is simple. Valence information is the ticket to survival. Being able to classify something as good or bad, and to do so as quickly as possible, can spell the difference between life and death. I'm out on a hike in the forest, and I see a yummy-looking mushroom over there, but should I eat it? It might kill me. Now, I can take my time with this one, because the mushroom isn't going anywhere. I can take a few minutes to look it up in my field guide to wild mushrooms. But if in this same forest I come across a black bear, I don't have this same luxury to ponder carefully what to do next. It's running straight at me NOW!

What the brain does in this case is remarkable, if we stop for a moment to appreciate it. A blob of color activates a certain pattern of nerves inside the eye. They fire a set of signals to the back of the brain, where the pattern is further processed and assembled into a more complicated pattern of information. This more complicated pattern is then compared to stored patterns of information in memory, which furnish the basis for categorizing the blob into a meaningful idea (bear!) AND assigning it valence (bad!). This all happens in less than a tenth of a second.

This is the simplest case of comparison: taking something right in front of your eyes and matching it to summary information stored in memory. But even in this simplest case, valence is the key question. Is it good or bad? How good?... or how bad?

Social psychologists have identified three main types of comparison that we make on a daily basis that provide context to our lives. These three are the counterfactual comparison, the social comparison, and the temporal comparison. The counterfactual comparison, as we have already seen, involves comparison between what was (or is) to what might have been. The social comparison involves the comparison of you to other people. The temporal comparison is between the way things are now to the way they used to be (or may one day become). These three kinds of comparisons have been the focus of thousands of research experiments since the 1950s, yet it is only recently that they have been glimpsed in the same light and seen to share many underlying psychological mechanisms.

We've already seen lots of examples of counterfactuals. Here's an example of social comparison. In the late 1990s it seemed that every second magazine or newspaper article was profiling the latest dot-com millionaire. Here's a 20-year-old who wrote a piece of software that helps people buy shoes on the Internet. . . and she's a millionaire.

Here's someone else who invented a cheaper way to manage a factory using computer software ... and he's a millionaire, too. One millionaire has a fabulous beachfront mansion near Monterey, another has a stunning penthouse in Manhattan. I remember the conversations with friends about these stories. We'd all feel a little glum, a little bit inadequate, after comparing our modest lives to these fabulous success stories. This is social comparison at work, and although human beings have probably always compared themselves to their neighbors, it is an entirely modern experience that we all should have so much social comparison information available, with popular media like television, movies, and magazines inundating us constantly with an overwhelming array of successful individuals. With the crash of the technology economy in the early 2000s, these dot-com millionaire stories vanished, much to the relief of my friends and me! Even so, there will never be a shortage of others to whom we compare ourselves, either in daily life or in the media.

Remember a few pages back when I drew the distinction between upward and downward counterfactuals? We can use precisely this same distinction to describe social comparisons. An upward social comparison occurs when you compare yourself to someone better off, someone like a dot-com millionaire. A downward social comparison occurs when you compare yourself to someone worse off. As we'll see in a moment, this distinction is enormously useful for describing the reasons we engage in comparisons in the first place.

A temporal comparison occurs when you compare yourself to how you used to be at some point in the past. What were you like seven years ago? Can you visualize this slightly younger version of yourself? This person probably feels distant, a person who is not really "you" as you now define yourself. Research by social psychologists Anne Wilson and Michael Ross at the University of Waterloo indicates that, roughly speaking, five years is the approximate period of time that includes the current you. More than five years in the past, your previous self begins to feel more and more distant, less and less like the real you. Most people tend to be a bit flattering as they think of themselves of long ago, imagining a continuous upward progression toward personal betterment. You might think, I used to be a loser in high school, I'm okay now, but I'll be great in the future. You can see that this downward temporal comparison to some past version of yourself, subjective and unverifiable as it is, can be comforting. But upward temporal comparisons are also possible; for example, you might think: I was a vastly better athlete twenty years ago than today. Again, temporal comparisons also may be downward or upward, and can make you feel better or worse as a consequence.

Of these three kinds of comparisons-counterfactual, social, and temporal-which do we rely upon the most? That's hard to say, because the necessary research is incomplete and still coming in from labs around the world. In research published in 2000, Wilson and Ross looked only at social and temporal comparison, and discovered that as people describe themselves, they use temporal comparisons most. In my own research, I have looked at all three comparisons, using the approach of asking people to speculate how often they use each in everyday life. This strategy must be taken with a grain of salt, because people's beliefs about their own behavior are not always accurate. Nevertheless, when college students are asked, they say that they compare themselves to their future hoped-for self most often (future-temporal). Counterfactual comparisons come second, past-temporal comparisons come third, and social comparisons come last. You probably see now why this ranking should be taken with a grain of salt: The average person probably hesitates to admit how much he or she likes to gossip. Although we are still awaiting the next generation of research that will decisively answer the "how often" question, I suspect that social comparisons are actually the most common of all.

It's worthwhile to reflect for a moment on the observation that the human brain naturally and spontaneously seeks out three kinds of comparison information in order to make sense out of ongoing events and circumstances. This would seem to offer a simple suggestion to journalists regarding how to clarify news stories. I don't know how many times I've come across stories in which a single, isolated number is given. The mayor's budget for the new task force is set at $98,000; the ombudsman's personal staff numbers 25; the new hydroelectric dam will produce 860 giga-doodles of power. What on earth do these numbers mean? With no benchmarks, I haven't the foggiest idea of what to make of them. Journalists should feel obligated to provide those benchmarks, and basic research in psychology suggests a road map of which benchmarks will be most useful: counterfactual (what the ideal task force budget ought to have been), social (the average ombudsman has a staff of 12), or temporal (dams of twenty years ago produced an average of 500 giga-doodles of power). You don't need to provide all three benchmarks in each case to make sense, but you definitely need at least one.

Why are these comparisons so important to our psychology? Counterfactual, social, and temporal comparisons each represent a fundamental facet of the brains standard response to trouble. There are really just two main ways to react to a problem. Change the situation or change your mind. If you change the situation, it means you take active steps to fix the problem, and end up changing the objective situation for the better. If that doesn't work, you can just change your mind, reconstruing the situation so that it seems not so bad after all. These two main kinds of reaction have been written about in various ways, labeled with dozens of different pieces of jargon, but the underlying meaning remains the same. One focuses on behavior and action, the other on mind and emotion.

We've seen three kinds of comparisons (counterfactual, social, and temporal) and two forms of each comparison (upward and downward). Here's how they all come together. The upward comparison tends to be the starting point for fixing the actual situation, whereas the downward comparison tends to be the starting point for changing your mind about the situation. Upward comparisons spur us to action and betterment; downward comparisons console us.



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