Social Comparison: according to my Social Psychology text, we all do it. (Irony, already?) It seems we have self knowledge (“I can catch fish.”) but social comparison allows us to make sense out of our self knowledge (“I can catch fish, but not as many as Uncle Si”.) Social comparisons are most meaningful when we compare to others in our same categories. Students interpret their test grade, for instance, by comparing it to those sitting around them. “How did you do?” they ask with urgency after every test. They also have to know, “What was the highest grade in the class?” and, of course, “What was the average?”
We make upward comparisons to those who are much better than we are at something. This might depress us, or encourage us to strive harder to improve. We also make downward comparisons to those who are much worse at something than we are. Often this helps us feel better about ourselves. (“At least I can catch more fish thanWillie!”)
At this point in the lecture, I asked my class, “So, who do you compare yourself to when you want to know how you are doing, spiritually? Do you compare yourself to the people at church? (I asked the class knowing full well that they were among the least-churched demographic in America, 18-25 year olds.)
“You mean like the Church Lady?” one student responded, referring to Dana Carvey’s SNL character.
Another commented, “They are all hypocrites at church anyway.” I let that slip by, without comment. (I am learning restraint, Mom.) Their comparison group is probably their peers, who also don’t go to church very much.
Social Psychology also suggests that we can choose to compare ourselves and how we are doing to “standards”. I suggested to the class that if they wanted to know how they were doing with love, for instance, they might compare themselves to the Bible, and its standards as set out in 1 Corinthians 13:
“What should we think about when we do compare ourselves to “impossibly” high standards like these?” I asked the class. “Should we give up because we will never measure up? Or should we be inspired to try harder?” (Apparently the class assumed it was rhetorical, because there was not much of an answer…)
Our culture’s standard of love would have to include “hooking up”, “friends with benefits”, serial monogamy, divorce, infidelity, and “shacking up”. All this under the narcissistic banner of: “WHATEVER MAKES ME HAPPY!”
So, I have a choice. I can compare myself to the 1 Corinthians 13 standards of love and often fail and need to ask for forgiveness, but, with an extra measure of grace, try again. Or, I can compare myself to my culture’s standards of love, and succeed every time.