How social comparison might help to increase social sustainability


Something deeply ingrained in today’s competitive and individualistic culture is our constant need to compare ourselves with others. This comparison is not always a conscious thought process at the end of which you will perceive yourself as more or less intelligent, social or attractive than another person. It can also happen unconsciously, when you start feeling insecure in a crowd of highly successful people even without you being aware of the underlying mechanisms behind your feelings.

This process of social comparison is not a new phenomenon of our era. Back in 1954, US psychologist Leon Festinger already developed a theory of social comparison processes, in which he explained that we compare our abilities and opinions with people that are similar to us. But it is not only abilities and opinions that are used for such a comparison. There is a multitude of other things that can be used as well: Houses, cars, fashion accessories or a large plasma screen television. These status symbols are representative for the American Dream in times of consumerism and they can help to differentiate ourselves from others. Climbing the social ladder goes along with acquiring more and more of these material goods.  

But these kind of status symbols begin to slowly lose their popularity. Today’s young people don’t want to own a car anymore, when car sharing allows them to enjoy all the benefits of travelling by car. They don’t want to have a fancy house with a swimming pool. Instead, they found new paramaters for comparing themselves with one another: Experiences and Sustainability. Today’s accepted currency of success and status is a backpacking trip through the Amazon rainforest or spending a year in Israel. It is having breakfast with Aboriginies or hitchhiking from Istanbul to Berlin. Laos or Cambodja are good destinations, whereas Thailand already had too many tourists.

And if you happen to travel in a highly sustainable way by avoiding airplane rides and only eat local vegan food, it is even better! The environmental crisis is one of the biggest challenges of our time and people take action against it. Right now, there are countless people responding to this crisis by developing business solutions, buying regional food or working in environment related NGOs. A focus on sustainability has become a desirable characteristic of humans and as such, it developed into a metric for social comparison. „Experientialism“ and a sustainable lifestyle has replaced consumerism.

But what comes next? When people have begun to live more ecologically sustainable and have already travelled to many places, how can they differentiate themselves from one another? A trend that can already be observed is an intensified search for meaning in life. Young people don’t want to work for money, but rather for self actualization and making the world a better place. In order to determine future status symbols, it might thus help to look at future problems and how they can be solved.

One challenge that is less debated than climate change is the increase of egocentrism, narcissm and social isolation with the latter being especially prevalent in large metropolises like London. The next big area for acquiring status symbols might thus be the field of social sustainability. And there are good arguments for supporting this notion. First, social comparison and the intensified search for meaning might start a status battle with the person acting the most altruistic winning it. In the future, having a high status might not only go along with living ecologically sustainable and seeking experiences, but also with fostering social sustainability. Second, there is scientific evidence that acting altruistic carries personal benefits as well. In multiple studies, researchers from the University of British Columbia and Harvard University were able to show that spending money on other people has a more positive impact on happiness than spending it on oneself. Moreover, famous positive psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky was able to show with some colleagues that engaging in random acts of kindness is making people happier. Smiling at a stranger in the street or paying the coffee for a person you don’t know is not only good for the receiver of the act, but also for yourself.

These developments might help to initiate a paradigm change from an „I“-focussed world towards a „We“-focussed society and thus help to improve social sustainability. All it takes is people becoming more and more aware of the challenge of social sustainability and taking action towards improving it. Social comparison might then do the rest...



Leon Festinger (1954): “A Theory of Social Comparison Processes” Human Relations 7: 117.

Elizabeth W. Dunn, Lara B. Aknin & Michael I. Norton (2008): “Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness” Science 319:1687.  

Sonja Lyubomirsky, Chris Tkach & Kennon M. Sheldon (2008): “Pursuing Sustained Happiness Through Random Acts of Kindness and Counting One’s Blessings” Unpublished data.