Human beings have a tendency to compare themselves to others and it is as automatic as any other human emotion. But the negative effects of comparisons keep us from our growth and embracing our greatest abilities to share with others.
Comparisons are often unfair, biased and almost always puts our focus in a place outside of ourselves. Ratings of our own abilities are strongly influenced by the performance of others, according to a study published in Neuron.
Interacting with high performers makes us feel more capable in cooperative team settings, but less competent in competitive situations. Moreover, the degree of “self-other-mergence” is associated with activity in a brain region previously implicated in theory of mind-the ability to understand the mental states of oneself and others.
“We found that although people estimated their abilities on the basis of their own performance in a rational manner, their estimates of themselves were partly merged with the performance of others,” says first author Marco Wittmann, a doctoral student in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Oxford. “The findings potentially have implications for social interactions in the workplace as well as clinical disorders such as depression.”
Estimating the abilities of ourselves and others is key for survival, guiding decisions about which social groups to join and whether to attack or retreat. In daily life, we constantly judge ourselves and others about everything from intellectual merit to athletic prowess.
A wealth of psychology research has shown that comparisons with other people can be used as an effective means for self-evaluation, and conversely, people base judgments of other people on knowledge of their own traits. However, relatively little is known about which brain regions are involved in estimating the abilities of oneself and others.
In the new study, Wittmann and his colleagues set out to address this question by combining behavioral experiments with functional magnetic resonance imaging. Twenty-four subjects participated in two games that involved either assessing the colors of shapes or estimating elapsed time.
They were also told that two other players were performing the same task at the same time. After each trial, the subjects were given feedback on their own performance and the performance of the other two players. Before the next trial began, the subjects were asked to rate the expected performance for themselves and the other players.
The researchers also assessed how the subjects’ expected performance ratings were influenced by cooperative and competitive contexts. During cooperative trials, the scores of the subjects and the other players were summed together for points that could translate into a monetary reward at the end of the experiment. But during competitive trials, points were awarded based on the difference between the subjects’ score and the scores of the other players.
In cooperative situations, the subjects evaluated themselves more positively when the other players performed well and more negatively when the other players performed poorly. But in the competitive context, the subjects evaluated themselves more negatively when interacting with high performers compared to low performers.
“Our behavioral findings match well with what people experience in their workplace,” Wittmann says. “They might feel better or worse about themselves depending on how well the group they are working with is doing, or they might feel worse about themselves when facing a strong competitor.”
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