On comparison and its impact

The following are some thoughts on ‘comparison’ – the theme of a module in a course on ideas in education. A mark of the current times is that there is space in a typical day’s schedule to explore these ideas and reflect on their relevance in life.

Beginning from within the family, some of the common forms of comparison that are done casually, are – comparison of academic achievement and career outcomes among individuals; comparison of material status of family members and groups; comparison of social statuses among families; and comparison of how one member would deal with a situation in comparison to another.

At school, comparison of academic performances was a common and normalised so much that one often learned to navigate the world by comparing. This happened sub-consciously. This can have a deep personal impact. Nearly every space of the school thrived on comparison – playground, library, school bus and activity rooms.

At workplace, performance based assessments and annual appraisals are a way of life. Are we really left with no other possibility than comparison, to draw the best of an individual? Will a person be left with no drive to do better, if no comparisons are made? I am not sure.

However, it does lead to conditioning lives in several ways. I am prone to adversarial behaviour at the workplace as a result of seeing excessive use of comparison. I realise that now I am predisposed to comparison as a tool to navigate most aspects of personal life. That is the irony.

Comparison generates a range of negative emotions as a first response. One’s self esteem is more likely to get affected even if briefly. It chips away from the idea of self that forms as one goes through life. The axe of comparison hacks at the sense of self that one carves over time. It defaces the self.  That’s how I personalise the experience of unbridled comparison in adult lives.

This leads to the question if comparison can ever be helpful. Surely, when one thinks from a sports perspective. Hasn’t a performance record over time made for better athletes and players? Comparison, like any other tool can be wielded in a variety of ways. It is helpful as long as it is used to illuminate processes and pathways that examine difference in outcomes. For instance, in political economics or sociology. One must be cautious of not using it for interpersonal assessments in ways that lead to a rating or hierarchical arrangement of individuals. The urge to compare leads one to compete. Competition, in that sense, brings comparison to fruition and achieves its intent. 

On another front, comparison affects identity in subtle ways. The outcomes of comparison as a process affects the identity of the place or the individual who was compared. Identity is transformed by comparison. This transformation is often to an undesirable effect. 

On a careful analysis it is also likely that comparison leads to conformity among individuals. Comparison tends to be based on a reference set of idealised expectations. Often, this leads to an implicit recognition of the reference as a norm. When individuals are compared and when it matters to the individuals to appear as a match to the expected norms, it drives them to conformity. Perhaps, this is relevant to political science and behavioural economics. We do see instances of this happening in a classroom more clearly than its connection in other areas.

Has anyone ever said that they have not had an experience of being compared? It is hard to imagine such a life. In these times comparison, for a variety of reasons, drives everyday life of people. The question is how useful is it to reflect upon comparison as an idea in a stock, monolithic way. It is a tool and its practice, limits and utility must be articulated. That is where I would like to see the discourse moving, as opposed to a reductive ‘good or bad’ discussion.There is much to benefit from when one can deploy comparison thoughtfully and appropriately.

3 thoughts on “On comparison and its impact

  1. Very interesting. Comparison is an inevitable aspect of existing in the world, that can be healthy or destructive. You can find yourself bitter and angry for feeling you fail to measure up to people you don’t even want to be like—or at least I can.

    1. I agree, J. It can be such a cocktail of emotions in that constant attempt to measure up to people. I am wondering if it has it always been destructive for you. That’s the common idea. Would be nice to read your thoughts.

      1. I would think you are right. I believe I have made progress in letting go of that tendency but it creeps back in when I’m feeling down. I suppose one has to be vigilant against a common inclination. Something to explore further.

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