How Social Comparison Leads to Unhappiness

I recently posted about Happy Habits – and got a surge of interest in the Positive Psych finding that Social Comparison reliably makes people unhappier. So I wanted to dig deeper, and share some of the growing body of research behind this statement. For example,  unhappy people make more frequent social comparisons than happy people,  and are more emotionally affected by the comparison. Olympic bronze medalists are happier than silver medalists – bronze medalists compare themselves with all the people who competed but won no medal at all, while the silver medalists compared themselves with the gold medal winners and tortured themselves with the belief that they could have won the gold.  Sonja Lyubomirsky has done some pioneering work in this area, and her book The How of Happiness includes a good, consumer-friendly overview of the science

Here’s the motivational reality: social comparison can be effective at manipulating action through negative emotions. Social comparison motivates people to strive for MORE – in sports, in conspicuous consumption, in the ongoing quest to be odor-free.  Social comparison drives a ton of advertising – and is woven into gamer-culture, both offline and online. But just  because it’s motivating doesn’t mean that it always works – or that it’s the right technique for your produc,  brand or service.

In game design, social comparison can take many forms: leaderboards, races, battles, competitive messaging. These techniques hook into our competitive instincts – they urge us to be the best, to dominate, to win, to BEAT OUR FRIENDS and show them who’s on top.  While some people enjoy this zero-sum mentality, many people (myself included) aren’t motivated by pummeling, beating, dominating, or otherwise besting their friends. For gamers like us,  zero-sum mechanics are a turn-off; we prefer the positive, connected emotions of partnering with friends and developing relationships.

It all comes back to knowing what your audience likes and responds to, and designing experiences they find compelling and pleasurable. If you’re designing for a bunch of hardcore gamers or a hard-driving sales team, then a zero-sum approach featuring points, leaderboards, and battles could be a great approach. If, however, you’re designing for  transformational consumers who want to feel more empowered,  connected and  supported in their goals, then a non-zero-sum approach featuring personal progress, social feedback and collective action might be more successful – and more fulfulling for your players.