Comparing Yourself to Others

Recently, I’ve been reading The Hydrogen Sonata, by Iain M. Banks. Banks, unfortunately deceased, was a huge inspiration to me, activating those special science-fiction loving neurons of mine and taking my imagination far beyond the realm of the possible. I won’t bore you with details about his work, but they sprang from a fearsome mind, eager to take you to far beyond places while keeping you grounded with an emotional core. And furthermore, his science fiction was utopian, not dystopian. They gave you hope for the future, that technology would bring about a societal shift towards freedom. He truly showed you the promise of post-scarcity.

I am but a gnat next to him. Where I think of people on planetoids, he thinks of giant man-made constructs orbiting suns. Where I think of guns of lasers, he thinks of knife missiles, gridfire, and effectors. And when I think of mere emotions, he thinks of vast meditations on life and the universe. Am I jealous? Just a little bit. And I waver in letting it discourage me or push me onward. A comparison conundrum.

I want to use this post to talk about comparing yourself with others. More of a thought exercise, really, rather than a call to arms. The standard advice is don’t compare yourself to others. Simple enough, yet we do it anyways. This advice is so ubiquitous (see Mark Manson), that I would almost call it trite and cliched. So why do it? There must be some utility in what the self-help gurus tell us to shed.

Think about science. Read any observational or experimental study and you’ll realize that the scientists are comparing things. Regression, survival analysis, decision trees, Markov modeling, neural networks; they are all fancy ways of comparing things. Is someone exposed to cigarette smoke more likely to get lung cancer than those who do not? If you take an antibiotic, are you more likely to be cured than someone who is not? Do rats exposed to cell phone radiation get more cancer than those who do not? Is someone who has these symptoms more likely to be ill than those who do not? And there is an entire field in healthcare research that focuses on disparities between groups.

Then think about every other indicator. The economy is doing better than it did last year. There was less unemployment than there was last month. This blogger has more followers than I do (grumble grumble…). Your grades are better/worse than last semester’s. Our entire existence seems to be one endless comparison against some form of benchmark.

Of course, the difference between these activities and you comparing yourself with a neighbor is that the former occurs at a population-level. So you don’t have to feel as shamed, unless you’re part of a group that is deemed ‘problematic’.

Is this good or bad? I have no clue. This modern life is so full of measurement, statistics, analytics, and targeted ads that I can’t really imagine much of an alternative. I sometimes wonder that if we gathered fewer statistics, there would be much less incentive to compare. Of course, as a scientist, I would be hard-pressed to admit that gathering more data is bad. But as an observer of human nature, I know that we get carried away with comparisons, sometimes to our own detriment.

Summary: It’s funny that we’re told not to compare ourselves with others, except we do it all the time, anyways.

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