Thief of Joy

Prof. Rahul Gupta Choudhury
Specialization : Marketing, Strategy and General Management

Theodore Roosevelt once called social comparison the ‘thief of joy’. It is an accepted practice in society today that individuals compare themselves against others. This is done mostly for self-evaluation – i.e., where does one stand vis-à-vis others in society. And this is where the problem begins as social comparison does more harm than any good. When one compares himself or herself against a realistic and achievable benchmark, social comparison becomes a motivator and gives a direction to one’s life. However, the problem today is people compare themselves with benchmarks that are not achievable or are simply unrealistic. This leads to a high degree of dissatisfaction and a very low self-esteem. If budding singers start comparing themselves with Lata Mangeshkar or Michael Jackson, it is only likely that the outcome is going to be negative and sometimes even, lead to a downward spiral. Dreams are completely different to comparisons. If the young singers dream of becoming Lata Mangeshkar or Michael Jackson sometime in the future, it might help them to achieve a very high level of perfection in the long run. So, looking for long term solutions for a short-term problem is bound to be detrimental to one’s life and career. Generally, people tend to have a very high self-image and simultaneously, not a very high image of others. Critical assessment is required not only for others but should also be directed at ourselves. A realistic estimate of what strengths and weaknesses one has is a key to a joyful life. A wonderful gift from God to humanity is that all of us are born with a unique set of capabilities as well as weaknesses. The question to ask at the end of our lives is whether we have achieved our potential by utilizing the gifts that God has given us. No comparison will help us then as the only person answerable to that question is in the mirror in front of us. Some people do not want to do this and so they end up thinking that they could be anybody they wanted. This is a wrong belief. Not everybody can be a Michael Jackson or a Maradona. Most scientists will never become Newton or Einstein. So, it is equally important to know what we cannot become and what we are not good at – as it is to know our strengths. The limitation of the individual leads many people to believe that they are not good at anything or that they do not have any major talent. This is also not the case. Every individual has some talent or the other and it is up to them to make the maximum utilization of this talent through planned, methodical, and systematic efforts. This also happens because of the excessive mentality of competition that the developed world has passed on to us. We, as a country, do not have the competitive tradition and this is not what our ancient knowledge teaches us. The primary reason is that the Indian tradition is based on self-improvement by looking inwards and the western concept of competition is highly detrimental as it leads to jealousy and envy which is the opposite of what our ancient scriptures teaches us. This attitude of becoming better than others in this rat race (at any cost – even by bringing down others), will only lead to a life without meaning. These people towards the end of their lives will realize that they have nothing to show in the end and that they have not lived their life at all. This vacuum in individual lives is at the core of all societal problems in the western world. Unfortunately, the developing world is also consumed by this mode of competition and are calling upon themselves the same problems which the western world is facing today. One of the biggest failures of Indian society is that we do not learn the good things of others; instead, we pick up all the bad habits of societies we think are better off than us. We forget that the western world came back from the brink, after WW2, through collaboration and helping each other out in a disastrous situation. They are still in the collaborative mode as the example of EU, NATO and others clearly demonstrate. Indians, on the other hand is, as usual, in a dichotomous mode. We are supposed to be a collective society as compared to the individualism of western societies and yet, we are the worst off in team games and anything that requires collective and collaborative efforts. This is because somehow our behavior is more outward looking than inward – we just do not want to improve ourselves – instead always comparing themselves with others. One of the favorite statements of our educated middle class is that the Indians in USA are doing very well. Little do we realize that there are just too many countries in this world which has progressed much more than us even though they were at the same level some decades back. And not many of them are dictatorships. These countries which have stolen a march over us are geographically spread out in Asia, Africa, and South America etc. and not necessarily in the developed west. Out of the 194 world economies, India’s rank is 144 in terms of per capita income. We rank 101st in Global Hunger Index 2021, and 136th in World Happiness Report. So, we have a long way to go. Insularity and thinking narrow will only exacerbate this situation. There is not a single Indian brand in USA or Europe that people know of. All we do is to export some products to Africa and now South America. Thank God for our software companies that we have at least some identities in the world market. Blaming the legacy system is not going to help. We collectively must find a way out and for that the primary objective should be to devise systems and processes which will completely overhaul the current systems. These new set of systems and processes should be modern and progressive while retaining the flavor and cultural tradition of India. The question is who will bell the cat? Who is responsible and accountable in the first place? We keep that question unanswered for the time being.    
Social comparison or plain comparison among individuals is one of the major traits that pull our companies back from performing to their full potential especially in the world arena. These comparisons come through the guise of competitiveness but in reality, is plain jealousy. In this new consumption-oriented society where money plays God, everybody wants everything. Wants become demand when people feel that they deserve everything that the other person has. That is a long list when the sample chosen is quite large. This is highly detrimental when it comes to collaborative working. The world has moved on to team or group working spread across continents and may be that will be a good option for Indian companies. Spreading the workforce over various countries or continents will reduce this phenomenon to a large extent – but this solution takes us back to the chicken and egg problem. There is no doubt that business in India has to be much more professional than what it is now and will have to be much more ambitious and resourceful in order to compete internationally. As long as the moneybags run their companies on their whims and fancies, there is little hope for Indian companies to achieve that. There are hardly any renowned company in the private sector which is hundred percent professional. So, the working culture remains where it is and unfortunately starts deteriorating with time as the firms stagnate. Managers in these organizations always has a relative mindset – meaning, always comparing themselves with their colleagues. So, the issue is not how the organization becomes better or how he himself becomes better, but that his colleague should not go ahead of him. In situations where credit has to be shared this becomes a very contentious issue. Nobody is ready to sacrifice for the organization – it is only self-interest which matters. The reasons also are crystal clear. The evaluation system is geared towards individual performances and not towards contribution towards the organization. So, in today’s world, nobody wants to make sacrifices as everybody is insecure in some ways or the other. Then, off course, there is the phenomenon of greed (from top to bottom) – the more the merrier. It is unfortunate that it seems that the key satisfier is ‘’I am better (off) than you”. Most of us forget that we all would be much better off if only we decide to collaborate with each other. With the risk of sounding vain, one may have the perception that people who believe that they have come from disadvantaged background in terms of finances or education or family, tend to have the aggressive need for so-called “getting ahead” by hook or by crook. Unfortunately, the situation in academia is nothing much better. Hundreds and thousands of engineering colleges and business schools have come up across the country and the quality standards of most of them are questionable. This has become a big business and their only aim is to make money somehow – imparting proper education is the farthest from their minds. The top institutions of the country are all government institutions and that is the way it should be in India. Even these top Indian institutions are struggling to get in to the Top 500 of World rankings. In a country like India, one is calling for disaster if professional education is left to the moneybags with highly questionable pedigree on education.  
Festinger brought in the concept of social comparison in 1954. He compared only the abilities and opinions of people. Since then, the theory has expanded in a major way to also include the three drivers of social comparison. The drivers are self-evaluation, self-improvement, and self-enhancement. Self-evaluation is correlated with the level of aspiration that each individual has. There is no problem with aspirations – the only caution is that the benchmarks of aspiration should not be unrealistic. So, the problem starts when we start comparing and then, higher the aspiration, greater the dissonance. Self-evaluations are mostly unstable in nature and changes with the circumstances. The real challenge within our own minds is that most parameters of self-evaluation are subjective in nature. If Mr X wants to be more productive than Mr Y, how is productivity of the individual going to be measured? So, the individual tries to bring in objective measures to his self-evaluation and hence most self-evaluations are a combination of subjective and objective measures. More often than not, this becomes a strange concoction which the evaluator himself does not understand properly. This then becomes a running battle in our own minds. The core issue here is to understand that nobody has everything and if one compares himself or herself on multiple parameters and with many objects simultaneously, the result is going to be frustrating and detrimental to the growth of the individual. The good news is that people normally compare themselves with others whom they think are not far ahead of them – i.e., the target object is perceived to be similar or close to the evaluator. If the evaluator finds that the ability of the target or the person he thought of as more or less similar, is not very different than himself – the individual feels he is performing well and becomes more confident. So, the target object or the benchmark plays a very important role in our lives. If the benchmark or the target is much ahead or dissimilar to the evaluator, the individual either tries to improve himself or the individual tries to obfuscate the perception of the target not only to himself but to others as well. It is unlikely that an academic or a corporate executive will compare himself with a movie star or a cricketer. The abiding principle of group behavior in India is conformity, and this holds true for people around the world. If an individual has a different set of skill sets compared to the group, he or she will feel inferior and will try to make it up through other means. Social comparison is mostly upward – i.e., people always tend to compare themselves with someone who is perceived to be or is really performing much better than the individual. It may be a motivator for self-improvement and when it becomes unattainable then some people if not all take devious routes. A common phenomenon in organizations is that the individual will make the target as a negotiation point. If the target is given something, the individual will use that to bargain similar benefits for himself or herself. Logic takes a backseat as most managers shy away from giving proper feedback to individuals – especially, individuals who seem to be useful to the manager. The factors determining this sort of behavior are many and may be discussed later. This becomes even more detrimental to the firm’s interest when the individual negotiating is perceived to be close to the manager. Upward social comparison may have negative consequences as well. If the target is too far ahead, then the individual tries not to compare or exclude the target from the social comparison group. There are examples where it has been seen that individuals, mostly those who are over-ambitious, even try to sabotage the efforts of the target so that they are not able to perform so well. In many other situations, these comparisons lead to inferiority complex which further leads to depression etc. Even a person like Tagore says that in this world you do not get what you want and do not want what you get. Part of the reason for this is that people do not value what they have or what they get. A certain person may want a promotion desperately and at that point in time the value of that coveted position is very high. However, as soon as he gets the promotion the value comes down as he is already busy planning for his next promotion or next step/move. The problem with over-ambition is that for certain moments there is a clear suspension of reality- and this often is tagged along with too much upward social comparison. That is why it is advisable to sometimes do downward social comparison. When the individual compares himself with those who are perceived to be below him, he gets a boost in his self-esteem and may also experience positive emotions like happiness. In most cases, the anxiety level of the individual comes down. Downward social comparison may also cause harm in the sense that one may feel unhappy or insecure thinking that things can become much worse than what it is currently. The best advice was given by Roy T. Bennett in The Light in the Heart, when he said: “Stop comparing yourself to other people, just choose to be happy and live your own life”.  
Comparisons can be further subdivided into two types - contrastive and assimilative. Contrastive comparisons, as the name suggests, further emphasis or enhances the difference between the individual and the target. Assimilative comparisons, however, makes the individual think that the circumstances of the target can easily be that of the individual. Alicia Nortje, research fellow at the University of Cape Town, has the following to say: “For contrastive outcomes, the difference between us and the comparison person is emphasized to such an extent that we feel resentment toward them, and our current state is undesirable, leading to feelings of depression. Assimilative outcomes are associated with more positive and desirable emotions. We feel admiration for the comparison person and optimism about our own state; we can achieve the same level as them”. Our corporates as well as our society is very often indulging in contrastive social comparisons and that is the bane of the problem. It is very surprising that even very highly educated persons indulge in contrastive comparisons which in a way points to the fact that degrees are only a means of livelihood. The real underlying objective of education is not getting accomplished. This is where, time and again, one remembers that Vivekananda used to strongly emphasize on character building of all citizens as an important step for building a strong and modern India. Most of us indulge in social comparisons. Research shows that approximately 10% of the thought processes of individuals around the world are on social comparisons. However, the good news is that a large portion of this thought processes of individuals are on assimilative social comparisons. Individuals of certain personality types are more likely to indulge in social comparisons. According to Buunk & Gibbons (2007), they are individuals with the following personality traits: Increased public and private self-consciousness, more empathy and sensitivity towards others, an interest in how other people feel, high narcissism, low self-esteem, and high neuroticism. It can be seen from these discussions that the outcome of social comparisons is dependent on a vast number of factors – the most challenging being the choice of the target person. Meaning – who are you comparing yourselves with? A budding cricketer may dream of becoming Sachin Tendulkar but if he starts comparing himself with Sachin Tendulkar even before he has played enough games in first class cricket, the outcome may be disastrous for the budding cricketers’ career. The outcome is also dependent on the type of social comparison the individual is engaged in – contrastive or assimilative. Then, above all, the characteristics of the individual engaged in social comparison plays a key role in the nature of the outcomes. Overall, the opinion of the scientific community seems to be veering around to the view that individuals are mostly better off if they do not indulge themselves too much in social comparisons. As was pointed out earlier, one good way of getting out of this syndrome is to develop a sense of gratitude. Everybody has many things to be proud of and many things to look forward to at every stage of our life cycle. However, human nature is such that we forget the good things we have got in our lives and always focus on things which we desire and did not get. Even this desire is a moving goalpost as new desires come into our minds as soon as the old desires are fulfilled. Jesuit Fathers with their commitment to education, in the true sense of the term, always told us that you should pray to God on a regular basis and each time you should make it a point to Thank the Almighty for all the things, big or small, that He has given us in this life. Over ambitious people in India should think that there is still a large portion of India’s population who struggle to have two square meals a day. There are millions of children who cannot continue with their education and that their future is virtually sealed from the day they are born. One is not sure whether life is fair or unfair – but one thing is certain – be grateful to God even for things that we take for granted. That we have food on the table for our families is itself a reason for being grateful. From collective experience, we know that there are times when even that is not certain. Partition has taught a large portion of the Bengali populace not to take anything for granted. 75 years after independence, the state - which was the most industrialised, fertile, and wealthiest and the most culturally and socially advanced and had sacrificed and contributed so much to oust the English forces from the country – is still down on its knees. There is no need to remind others about the horrors of partition, but it is a travesty of fate that nobody was held responsible for such a heinous act – in many other advanced countries, this would have been considered a war crime. To sum it up, let us see what Alicia has to say. She says: “The research about social comparisons is complex and equivocal. Still, one pattern seems clear: the outcome of social comparisons hinges on who we are, who we are comparing ourselves to, and what we want from the comparison. There are many more beneficial ways to develop self-esteem, and chasing after someone else’s successes so that you can feel proud of yourself is hardly healthy. Each of us was born in a unique set of circumstances, in a unique environment, and our successes are not limited by the people who we compare ourselves to. Instead, we should be grateful for what we have achieved and grateful that we can continue to achieve what we desire”. The two most important criteria we must remember when we discuss about social comparison are that social comparison happens only when there is relevance and similarity. Relevance is the phenomenon that an academic will always compare himself on academic criteria and not on his or her athletic abilities and performances. Similarity is the phenomenon that people always compare themselves with others who are similar either in terms of personal characteristics or in terms of performance. One interesting fact of social comparison is that sometimes it is counterfactual. It is observed that a student who comes third is happier than the student who comes second. This is because the student who came in second will do upward social comparison and always think that he narrowly missed the first position. The student who came in third will always do downward social comparison and be thankful that he has made it to the medal list which he could have just missed narrowly. Stephen Garcia (University of Michigan) and Arnor Halldorsson (University of Michigan) published a set of very interesting research findings in 2022. They followed up on the self-maintenance theory (Tesser 1988) and found that competition is stiffer when the relationship is closer. Moreover, if the subject of the competition is relevant, close relationships will compete more strongly and if the subject of competition is not relevant friends will give an easier time to each other compared to strangers. In a situation where the friend consistently does much better, either the competition becomes irrelevant, or one ceases to be friends anymore. In the first situation one will cease to compete and instead try to bask in the glory of the friend who tries to reach perfection.
It is common knowledge in corporate that managers do sub-optimal hiring. This means that managers will never hire somebody who is better than them and will be a threat to their own position. This is true for academia and faculty hiring as well. Many corporates and institutions are aware of this and hence has checks and balances in the recruitment system. For people with the goal of mastering a subject, upward social comparison is more of a challenge than a threat. These people will work harder as they feel that their goals are achievable. Then there are people with fixed mindset and there are people with growth mindset. People with fixed mindset think that their abilities and talents are fixed and cannot be changed. Hence upward social comparison is more of a threat to their self-evaluation. On the other hand, people with growth mindset view upward social comparison as a challenge and an opportunity to improve themselves. Another phenomenon known as the N-effect is that the competitive spirit comes down with increasing numbers of competitors, which is completely the opposite of what our common sense tells us. It has been observed that comparison with friends is the most influential factor – so people give more credence to their comparison with friends rather than strangers or people who are distant to them. Similarly, people compare themselves more with a local perspective than with people in a geographically spread-out area. Comparison will be more meaningful when done in the immediate neighbourhood rather than an area situated far off or an area which is more abstract. So, people residing in Bhubaneswar will compare themselves with others in Bhubaneswar rather than in Mumbai or Delhi. Then social comparison is done with the benchmark or standard which is closer to the individual’s position. The topper in the class will not be concerned at all about the performance of the students in the last quartile of the class. However, he will be very bothered about the gains or losses of the students who come in at number 2 or number 3. An IIM or IIT alumnus will always compare himself with his fellow classmates irrespective of where and how far they are located. He may choose to completely ignore the abilities or performances of his immediate colleagues when he feels that his classmates are doing much better. So, social comparison may sometimes become a very complex psychological process in our minds. Also, social category plays an important role in case of group comparisons. The middle class in India unequivocally expresses concern at excessive taxation. However, when this same middle class is further divided into groups depending on their political affiliation, the results may be quite different. The Frog Pond effect may also be included in this discussion of social comparison. This is basically a question of a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond. Different people are differently comfortable in this disparate condition. An average student is very comfortable in a below-average school and extremely uncomfortable in an above-average school. Another interesting phenomenon of social comparison is what is known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. It is seen that poor performers always overestimate their capabilities and their performances, while top performers always underestimate their capabilities and performances. This is because relatively unskilled people do not even know that they do not know – and hence, overestimate. Top performers accurately assess their performance and capability but for some unknown reason overestimate the capability and performance of others thus devaluing their own performance and capability. This is the reason why average people almost always think that they are above average even though it is scientifically just not possible.
Andrea Cambalikova presented a very interesting study by the consultancy firm Bain & Company in her article “Modern Trends in Business Management in the Light of Globalisation” in 2021. She presented a research report by Bain & Company which the firm is doing from 1993. The report tracks the most pertinent and the most popular management tools. It also publishes surveys on the top management trends in the world. The survey is done on thousands of people which includes a large number of managers across different levels. It is carried out across the world and includes all the continents – including a complete range of countries, from the developed to the laggards. It is observed that Benchmarking is one of the major tools used by companies. So, comparison is done by companies for self-evaluation and as well as self-improvement. The idea behind this is to find out the competitive position of the company vis-à-vis the competitors. This is extant wisdom and has wide acceptance in business management. However, if we study the performances of the top companies in the world, we will see that companies which has provided superb value to the customers and has set up their own standards instead of just following what the competitors are doing, has succeeded in an extraordinary fashion. So, this is quite like the Blue Ocean strategy. Companies like Apple or Walmart had succeeded in a spectacular fashion because not only they were pioneers but provided value to their customers which they have been able to sustain over a long period of time. Companies have tried to emulate them but has failed so far because companies like Apple and Walmart are incredibly innovative and creative in their strategies and product/service development. The Japanese car manufacturers succeeded even in USA not because of the widely held belief that Japanese cars are much better in quality parameters. Japanese cars succeeded because they understood what the customers need and wants much better and came to the market with a lot of creative ideas built around their products and services. This is not to say that quality is not important. However, having customer insights and delivering products and services which exactly matches with the customers’ requirements is the key to success for most companies in most markets. So, benchmarking is important but the focus or the locus of attention of the companies should be the customer and not competition. This is applicable for companies who are way behind the market leaders as well. This is because if the companies who are followers and challengers try to play catch-up, the leader in the market would have gone a few steps ahead by the time the followers reach the earlier position of the leader. The most difficult area in this game is that the market leader through its creativity and innovation will continuously change the rules of the game. They will introduce a product or a service which is again far ahead of what the competitors can achieve in a short span of time. Although benchmarking is important, too much reliance on this aspect of business management may be detrimental to the survival and growth of companies who are not leaders in their market segment. In this case, comparison may not be of too much help to these companies.
Some of the top management trends around the world particularly pertinent to India are:
1)      Today’s business leaders must trust and empower people, not command, and control them
2)      Culture is at least as important as strategy for business success
3)      Supply chain capabilities are increasingly vital to success in our industry
4)      Customers are less loyal to brands than they used to be
5)      We could dramatically boost innovation, by collaborating with outsider, even competitors
6)      Bureaucracy and excessive levels of hierarchy are putting us at a competitive disadvantage.
It is clear from the above points that managers and companies have realized that future sustainable growth will come from collaboration and not by comparing and competing. Collaboration brings in new and fresh ideas and creates synergy in implementation as well. It is these synergistic actions that will enable us to grasp the big picture and make an impact in the lives of our customers, our society, and generally to the entire world. The synergies will ensure optimality of efforts, costs as well as outcomes and thus creates efficiencies which are beyond the capacities of a single individual or even a single company. Collaboration also fosters innovation which is the guiding light for progress in this world. From the day of the introduction of the electric bulb to the modern-day space missions, it is innovation that is driving humanity – and this is going to hold true till the very end of the civilization (if that happens). However, the one most important thing which fosters innovation is the prevalent culture. If we look around the world it becomes clear that innovation, invention, and discovery has driven the development of the western world in modern history. Even today, after so many centuries of development, the West has not slowed down. This is primarily because of their culture of innovation across institutions that is driving their development and growth. Countries in Asia and South America which have understood this phenomenon and has been able to intertwin this culture in their social systems and processes are also having spectacular growth and success in almost all fields of human endeavour. Earlier, top corporations in the world – especially in the West – used to get mired in bureaucracy and unwanted hierarchical structures. They learnt the lesson of their lives when Japanese car manufacturers took over the US and European markets and many top US and Europe based car manufacturers went bankrupt. No emotional appeal to patriotism of the Americans helped. Customers will always look for value and point-of-origin does not matter in this world. Lee Iacocca tried this even roping in the President of the United States in this effort, but to no avail. So, leaders of businesses and even countries must concentrate in building this culture (of innovation) based on which their strategy will work with the help of robust systems and processes. The culture of each organization is different, and no amount of comparison or so-called benchmarking will help. Culture, robust strategy and proper systems and processes are the key. And, of course, bureaucracy must be minimised.