Social Comparison Social Comparison “Eomchina” is yet another entry in the long list of recently coined words sweeping Korea. Like many others, this neologism is a contraction made from a longer phrase’s first syllables. In this case, the original phrase literally translates as “mom’s friend’s son” and was first used in its contracted form in the webtoon Closet Fantasia (2005). Now, one can easily find the word in nearly any cultural medium, from TV shows and movies to books and news articles. That said, what exactly does this three syllable word signify? Put simply, eomchina represents the pervasiveness of social comparison in Korea. It is the idea that no matter how hard one tries, the seemingly perfect kid next door will always be smarter, more successful and better looking. The book Eomchina, named for the term, takes a comedic spin on the topic, looking at it from the angle of a second grader dealing with the pressure of not being as impressive as his mother’s friend’s son. Despite the amusing presentation, this obsession with comparison is a serious issue that extends beyond neighborhood jealousy. The following articles and other resources examine social comparison’s cultural and psychological roots and impacts. Humans are Social Animals Most people would likely agree with Aristotle’s notion that humans are social animals. Social bonds lie at the core of every culture, and despite the growing popularity of spending time alone, the internet is constantly providing alternate means of interacting with others. It seems there is an innate human need for interpersonal connections. At the same time, recent and ongoing research in psychology, neuroscience, and other disciplines continues to reveal new implications regarding social comparison as a natural human instinct. Inequality Experiment The experiment here looked at what would happen if two monkeys were given inequal rewards for the same task. Initially, both animals happily accepted the neutral reward of a cucumber for handing an experimenter a rock. However, when the experimenter then gave one monkey a grape for completing the task and the other monkey the familiar cucumber, the second monkey’s reaction was completely different; it grew angry and rejected the reward. These results provide evidence that group members’ attitudes towards their own level of misfortune depend heavily on their status relative to others in the group. Psychological Basis for Jealousy In Korea, there is a saying that “if your cousin buys land, you’ll get a stomach ache (i.e. be jealous).” Phrases describing how others’ happiness can feel like personal misfortune are not unique to Korea; many other countries have similar words or proverbs. In Japan it is said that “your bad luck is like honey to me,” while ‘schadenfreude,’ originally a German word, is now used around the world to describe the joy felt at seeing someone else’s pain. This video from the Korean educational network EBS explains the psychological basis for this complex emotion. Neural Correlates of Schadenfreude Brain activation in dACC was modulated by relevance of comparison domain. Brain activations in response to (A) the SpLo minus AvLo condition and (B) the SpHi minus AvLo condition Many doctors and neuroscientists have searched for the physical basis of schadenfreude. In doing so they have found that the same brain areas that represent physical pain are also active when one feels jealous. Additionally, the same areas that represent joy and pleasure also display increased activity when one sees or hears about someone else’s misfortune. “When Your Gain Is My Pain and Your Pain Is My Gain: Neural Correlates of Envy and Schadenfreude” (Hidehiko Takahashi et. al, 2009, Science 323: 937-939. Humans’ Inherent Subjectivity No matter how hard one tries, it is impossible to see the world from a wholly objective point of view. Each person carries with them unique experiences, goals, and opinions. Consequently, when two individuals come into contact comparison is inevitable. The following sources look at ways in which a seemingly objective world can be made subjective when put through the lens of the individual. Social Comparison Theory American psychologist Leon Festinger’s (1919-1989) Social Comparison Theory, first proposed in 1945, posits that an individual’s interactions with others play a heavy role in determining one’s values and attitudes towards the world. Festinger explained that people possess a fundamental desire to receive validation of their opinions and abilities. To satisfy this need, people compare themselves with those around them. This is because the majority of activities used to define competence and success exist on a relative scale. Without an absolute metric by which to measure their abilities, people turn to social comparison. The results of such comparisons in turn affect an individual’s level of self-esteem. Optical Illusions The video above and this article contains a number of optical illusions. In taking a short look at the images, it becomes clear how large an influence our surroundings and individual circumstances can play on our perception of the world without our realizing it. What a given image represents will vary from person to person and may even change as one continues to observe it. Worth of Jealousy You are offered $100,000 at no cost to you. The catch? If you accept, the person you hate most in the world will in turn receive $10 million. Would you take the money? One’s answer to this question can say a lot about attitudes regarding personal versus relative satisfaction. For some people, the money maintains its value regardless of who else benefits. However, for others, like the two MCs of the variety show linked above, knowing one’s enemy will receive a greater amount would be too painful a reality to accept. Social Comparison’s Upsides and Downsides Even though looking to others to determine one’s relative success is an innately human action, not every culture does so to the same extent. This article addresses Korea’s seeming obsession with social comparison. In particular, the author traces the phenomenon back to Korea’s collectivist culture, which encourages a more uniform definition of success than individualist (but otherwise similar) societies do. With success defined on much more limited range, people cannot help but compare themselves to others. However, in doing so people risk lowering their own self-esteem. Not only that, the current reverence of a select number of universities and companies deemed acceptable by society’s standards risks further intensifying already extreme competition. The image above is a part of Pyungsangdo (A Lifetime) by Joongsik Ahn (1861-1919). This painting illustrates the figure of eomchina who passed the Civil Service Exam in Joseon Dynasty. The Dangers of Eomchina The video above emphasizes ways in which Korea’s excessive culture of comparison can detrimentally impact psychology on a personal and societal level. The notion of eomchina lends some insight into the way social comparison has been driven to the extreme in Korea. Whereas most trendy words maintain their popularity for only a few years, eomchina has remained in the vernacular for nearly 15 years. If the term were any less relevant it would have gone away by now, but that is clearly not the case. The following current events program shines a spotlight on so-called “comparison syndrome” and emphasizes the need to fix the damage it causes. (SBS TV Investigating Documentary show 1, 2) Positive Effects This article poses the question “is social comparison necessarily negative?” and encourages us to take advantage of this social phenomenon in novel ways, such as: gaining perspective on our own abilities, satisfying a sense of belonging, and increasing social bonding. Also, although it has its shortcomings, Korea’s culture of social comparison is not without its benefits. For instance, Korea is known around the world as one of the safest countries to travel or live in (see the video above). There are many theories as to why this is the case, from a high standard of education to an emphasis on strong ethical conduct. However, another factor that likely plays a role is hyperawareness of others and the possibility of attracting negative attention towards oneself. In any case, this social experiment conducted by a foreigner living in Korea showcases just how safe Korea is. Proper Balance The video above contains an interview with Yonsei University psychology professor Lee Dong-kwi, wherein he discusses the various emotions that can arise from social comparison. He first explains that feelings like jealousy, inferiority, and selfishness are completely natural and not inherently wrong. However, if taken to the extreme such feelings can lead to destructive actions and attitudes towards others. Consequently, he emphasizes the importance of balancing social comparison with personal satisfaction. If the two are properly managed, potentially dangerous emotions like inferiority and low self-confidence can be transformed into driving forces for self-improvement. In addition, regularly taking time to reflect on oneself outside the context of society can promote higher self-esteem and an ability to take joy in others’ successes. Only if each of us makes an effort in our daily lives to embody these ideas can society as a whole promote a healthier self-image. Being a productive member of society often means overcoming humans’ natural tendencies for the sake of social order. That is why every culture has its own laws and social norms that circumscribe acceptable behavior. Social comparison, however, provides a counterexample of an innate human behavior that cannot exist absent interpersonal relationships. By actively engaging with the outside world, one inevitably comes into contact with other individuals, presenting ample opportunity for comparison. Indeed, as many of this page’s sources discuss, the urge to determine one’s standing in the group and strive for improvement relative to others is a remarkably strong one. That said, is social comparison merely another drive that should be kept in check or is it a practice that should be encouraged? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle; there is a proper time for everything. Just as legal codes inform us of certain activities forbidden in the public sphere but permissible in private, so too does context weigh heavily on the applicability of social comparison. A complex mélange of cultural, psychological, economic and other factors rapidly come into play. We owe it to ourselves and others to be aware of these diverse elements and decide at what point consideration of one’s relative standing gets in the way of personal development and satisfaction.