Well, mostly we do, but there are two kinds of social comparison:
- Upward social comparison –where we compare ourselves with those who we think are better than us.
- Downward social comparison –where we compare ourselves to those who are worse off than us.
We use ‘upward’ social comparison to help drive us to achieve higher goals in life. We use ‘downward’ social comparison to help us feel better about our current situation.
But why is it important for us to compare ourselves with similar people? One study might show some light into understanding the human behavior of this kind.
In this experiment, researchers wanted to know how the American public would react upon finding a wallet in midtown Manhattan.
There were two variations of the wallet but each contained a letter, $2 and a return address. The first wallet included a letter from an intelligent and articulate English person (the type of person who lived in that area of Manhattan).
The second wallet included a letter from a foreigner. To mix it up even further, some of the letters had a positive tone, others were neutral whereas some were negative.
The results were pretty conclusive:
- The wallet from the English person with a positive or neutral letter was returned about 65% of the time.
- However, the wallet with a negative letter from the foreigner was only returned 10% of the time.
The study concluded that when we feel an affinity to another person, we are more likely to help them. This is because we compare ourselves to them and put ourselves in their position.
4. Why we don’t express our opinions if we are in the minority
Many of us have watched those reality shows where contestants are fond of telling the cameras that ‘I’ll tell you to your face’ or ‘I say it like it is’. But if you were the only person that disagreed with all your friends, would you still state your opinion? I bet most of you said that you would.
However, research doesn’t back this up. In fact, it suggests the opposite. If someone thinks they’re in the minority, they are less likely to voice their opinion. However, if they believe the majority agrees with them, they’ll be much more willing to speak out.
This is the Spiral of Silence Theory.
So why don’t we speak out if we are the lone voice? Because we all want to fit in at the end of the day. No one wants to be singled out and rejected. This works because we fear social rejection.
There are many studies that support this theory. One study had smokers giving up their rights if they believed they were the only person in a room full of non-smokers. Another example showed that people will agree with an obviously wrong answer if everyone else gives that answer.
There are serious undertones to this theory, however. One historical example goes back to the French Revolution. During this time, religion came under attack, and the French church, believing it was in the minority, was silent. The French people, despite being religious and backing the church, joined the opposition.
“More frightened of isolation than of committing an error, they joined the masses even though they did not agree with them.” – Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann (German political scientist)
In any event, these are just four theories that help when it comes to understanding human behavior. Human beings are naturally curious. We want to know why we behave in the ways we do. For this reason, we’ll continue to study ourselves until we find the answers we’re looking for.
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