Suppose we participate in the following game. Someone gives us $30, and we have to share it with a stranger. If they accept the deal we propose, we both keep the money. But if they turn it down, we both lose. What is the average amount that the other person would require in order to accept the agreement? From a purely rational point of view, any figure would do. The other person would have more money than at the beginning of the game. However, we know that we do not always act with logical reasoning and that we are swayed by very different impulses. This game is based on the experiment that three economists published in 1982 called “ultimatum bargaining.” When they carried out this exercise with various participants, they discovered what amount is accepted. On average, the stranger accepts the deal when they get at least 40% of the total. If the figure is below 20%, it is rejected outright.
This game has led to several conclusions. When we believe that what is being proposing to us is unfair, we call off the deal, even if it seems that we are acting against all logic. And, most importantly, it shows we innately need to compare ourselves. This tendency is evolutionary: it situates us, gives us perception and prepares us to face our environment. That’s why, when we make decisions, we consider what others do or earn. This happens when we drive: we not only look at the road, but we also check what’s happening behind us through the rearview mirrors. The tendency is so deeply ingrained that even organs in our body function by comparison. According to Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at the University of Berkeley, our eyes have cells in the retina that distinguish colors only in relation to other shades. This is how we see, and this is how we also have been thinking since we were little.
Babies compare what they have with each other. Anyone who has ever lived with children or teenagers will have seen how, in most families, housework is an eternal battle of comparison: over who does more or less. One person watches what the other is doing and, if they think they have lost out, throws a tantrum. Again, this is evolutionary (although it is still exhausting for the poor parents). When the lioness hungrily chases the zebra on the savanna, the zebra’s goal is not only to outrun the lioness, but to outrun the other zebras. Therefore, when the predator manages to catch a zebra, the rest walk calmly by her side. If at work, we learn that our colleague earns more doing the same job, despite have the same experience and seniority, our motivation drops considerably, and we feel disappointed and deceived. The need to compare ourselves to others has a purpose: it gives us an external reference to measure our status, even if it is just about who has to unpack the dishwasher. It’s the result of millions of years of our brain’s evolution. But while it may be an innate instinct, it also can be a harmful trap.
If we continually compare ourselves to others to reaffirm our personal worth, we will feel frustrated and empty. At some point, someone will have more. Even if we are measuring the intangible, such as health, beauty, or joy. If, in addition to comparing ourselves, we also desire what the other person has, we open Pandora’s box to an uncomfortable emotion: envy. Although we tend to measure our successes in relation to those of our partner or assess our social media posts in relation to those of our friends, it’s important not to feed this mechanism. Better still, we must avoid falling into the trap of thinking that our happiness is based on having more than others. If we let ourselves spiral into constant comparison, we will sacrifice our own well-being.
If we must make comparisons, it is better that we change the focus of what we are confronting. Instead of comparing ourselves to something external, we should focus our attention within, on our ability to evolve. We should stop thinking about who is the smartest, and start appreciating our learning process and how we have become better at decision-making. We should avoid comparing our children to others or our achievements with those of our peers. Instead, we should appreciate how our children are growing and how we have been able to achieve and overcome difficult challenges. It is a kinder way of treating ourselves and a way to better direct an innate mechanism so that we gain wisdom, self-control and greater sensitivity towards others… The space for self-improvement is infinite, and focusing on this, helps us to stop agonizing over what we do in relation to others. Every person has their own path and, with it, their own difficulties. Let’s follow our own path; it will make us happier.
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