Competition can often be motivating. The history of discovery and innovation is filled with stories of people who were spurred on by the prospect that someone else would beat them to the goal. Watson, Crick, and Franklin were concerned that other groups were also closing in on the chemical structure of genes. Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray were rivals in the development of the telephone (and indeed, Bell’s patent application preceded Gray’s by a matter of hours).
Yet, in ordinary life, social comparisons can also be de-motivating. To understand why, it is important to start with the core principle that people’s engagement with a task depends on two factors: whether the goal is important for them to achieve and whether they believe they can achieve it.
If you compare yourself to someone else who is just a little better than you are, you may be energized to improve and catch up with them. In this case, competition increases your sense that the goal can be achieved, and provides some incentive to increase the importance of the goal. But, if you compare yourself to someone who is significantly better than you are, you may feel like no matter how hard you work you will never measure up to their example. Now, the gap between you and your goal seems impossible to bridge.
A paper in the March, 2016 issue of Psychological Science by Todd Rogers and Avi Feller provided evidence for the downside of competition.
In one study, they examined over 5,000 participants who were students in a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). Many MOOCs have the students give peer evaluations to each others’ papers in order to make the workload manageable for the instructors. In this MOOC, students wrote a paper about mid-semester and then gave evaluations to at least three papers written by their peers.
The measure of interest was whether students finished the course and ultimately received credit for it. The quality of essays a student evaluated affected whether they finished the course. About 68% of students who evaluated essays of average quality finished the course. But, only 45% of the students who evaluated excellent essays finished the class. That is, when students read excellent examples of other student performance (and thus had a chance to compare themselves to other students who were performing well), they were less motivated to finish the class than if they read average examples of other students’ essays.
As a way of understanding the size of this effect, the researchers also looked at the effect of the grade students got on their essay. Overall, 93% of students who got a perfect store on their essay went on to finish the class, while 75% of students who got an average score finished the class. That means that seeing examples of excellent work (as opposed to average work) was about as demotivating to students as getting an average score on their own essay (as opposed to an excellent score). It also means that the worse you did on your own essay, the more that you could be made to feel like you could not possibly succeed in the class.
The researchers also did a second study in which they manipulated the essays people evaluated experimentally and got similar results.
These findings demonstrate that comparing yourself to excellent performers can sap your motivation. You have probably experienced something like this before. When learning to play a musical instrument, hearing a real virtuoso may lead you to think you will never be any good at all. Similarly, starting at a new gym can be an exercise in despair when you see toned gym rats go through their workout.
That doesn’t mean that you have to fall prey to the perils of social comparison. Ask yourself why you are working toward this goal in the first place? It is rare that your goal is to be the best in the world at something, and so there is no need to be threatened by the excellent performance of another person. If you go to the gym to get in shape, the only person you need to be better than is the person you were before you started working out.
Also, it is important to remember that anyone who is good at something has put in a lot of effort to get to that point. When you compare yourself to others , it is easy to discount the work that it took for them to reach their current level of performance. If you do compare yourself to people who are better than you, try to imagine how good they were at the same point in their own practice.
I started playing the saxophone about 17 years ago when I was in my mid-30s. Living in Austin, Texas, I am surrounded by great musicians. At first, I was intimidated by their ability, and hearing the number of amazing players in town made me doubt my commitment to take up the instrument. Eventually, though, I realized that my goal was not to quit my job and play the sax, but to have an artistic outlet. Eventually, I focused on the goal that if I played for 10 years, I wouldn’t be horrible. Now, I enjoy hearing my peers who are more skilled than I am, because it gives me a sense of new things I might eventually learn to do. And I did reach my goal—I now play in bands in town.