Why Comparing Yourself to Others Is Normal

A man and a woman compare their work in an office.
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A game of pick-up basketball against someone far taller and more skilled than you may leave you feeling a bit low, but joining that person's team would probably give your self-esteem a boost, new research suggests.

That's because people automatically compare their own performance with that of others, according to the study, published today (July 20) in the journal Neuron. When they're cooperating with another person, they perceive that person's performance as a reflection on their own: A better partner makes people feel better about their own abilities, while a worse partner makes them feel incompetent, too.

During competition, the opposite happens: A skilled competitor makes people judge their own performance as worse, and a bumbling opponent makes them feel better.  

The brain region responsible for this so-called "self-other mergence" in competition and cooperation is area 9, a strip of cortex that spans the frontal lobe. (Picture it right behind your forehead.) Area 9 shows up often in studies of social cognition, said study researcher Marco Wittmann, a doctoral student in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Oxford in England, so it wasn't too surprising to see that it plays a role in gauging one's performance against others. [10 Things You Didn't Know About the Brain]

What was more surprising was that it worked both ways, he said: The comparisons going on in your brain shift not only your ratings of your own abilities based on how you perceive others, but also your ratings of that person's abilities based on your perception of your own.

"It's really a new kind of representation here that could lie at the heart of a lot of individual differences" among people, said Christian Ruff, a neuroeconomist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland who was not involved with the study.

Social comparisons

In the study, Wittmann and his colleagues asked 24 participants to play reaction-time games while inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. This machine tracked blood flow and indicated which brain areas were more or less active at a given time.

The participants were sometimes given the choice to play the games cooperatively with another player and sometimes given the choice to play the games in competition with another player. But they could also choose to skip the competition or cooperation, and get a small number of points for themselves automatically.

After each round, the person was given feedback on both his or her performance and the other player's performance, and told to rate the other player's abilities as well as his or her own. In reality, the feedback — as well as the other player — was fake, and researchers could vary whether a person was told if they were doing well or poorly.

The ratings allowed the researcher to gauge how the person took into account the feedback about the other player when rating himself or herself, and vice versa. [10 Things That Make Humans Special]

"The effect is relatively intuitive," Wittmann told Live Science. "In cooperation, you somehow adjust how good you think you are to your colleagues, and in competition, you do the opposite."

It's intuitive, perhaps, but also complicated, Ruff said. The study highlights how people's judgments of themselves are inextricably linked to their perceptions of others, he said.

"This is a study that highlights that neural signals representing ourselves or other people are much more complex than we previously thought, and we need to think about these signals from, perhaps, other angles," Ruff told Live Science. "We need to take the specific social context in which these signals are generated into account much, much more."

Area 9 of the brain

The fMRI data revealed that two brain regions were particularly active during these tasks. The first, the perigenual anterior cingulate cortex, is located deep in the midsection of the brain. More activity in this region correlated with rating oneself better at the reaction-time games.

In contrast, the second area, area 9, was busy during the ratings of other people, and more activity here meant a more generous assessment of the other player. Activity in area 9 also correlated with the self-other mergence effect, in which ratings of the self and others colored one another. The stronger the brain signal in area 9, Wittmann said, the stronger the self-other mergence.

The findings could mean that people just have a hard time tracking their own as well as others' performance, so the estimates tend to bleed together, Wittmann said. Or perhaps the framing of yourself in competition or in cooperation with another person bolsters the effect, he said.

Proving causality between a brain signal and a behavior is notoriously difficult with fMRI studies alone, Ruff said. For that reason, the next step in the research should be to study the effect in people with brain lesions in area 9, to see if they are less likely to take other people's performance into account when judging their own, Ruff said.

People in the study were relatively accurate and rational when making their assessments, Wittmann noted; the self-other mergence effect didn't cancel out common sense and the facts presented to the participants. Still, he said, it's an interesting look at how people make judgments when they are the subject.

"It would be interesting to see, for instance, if for depressed patients, their estimates of how well they're doing are somehow different" from how other people judge themselves," Wittmann said.

Original article on Live Science.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.