Social Comparison and the Rise of Mental Health Problems in Young Americans
Your smartphone could be making you miserable. Young Americans today are facing levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses that are higher than they were a generation ago. And the rest of us aren’t doing much better.
Depressed Teen: Social Comparison and the Rise of Mental Health Problems in Young Americans
According to the CDC, 1 in 10 Americans suffers from some form of depression.
(1) People between the ages of 18-24 report the highest incidences.
(2) 40 million of us over the age of 18 have an anxiety disorder, and as the APA pointed out in its recent report Stress in America millennials are the hardest hit.
(3) Suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 and 24 claiming 4600 lives per year.
This is a society that has more wealth than much of the rest of the world combined. What’s happening here?
Some claim better reporting—that we have better mental health resources in place and more people are aware of their psychological problems than they were a generation or two ago. Others point to common sources of stress such as money problems, economic instability, family relationships, personal responsibilities, lack of job security, and unemployment. While these may all be contributing factors, there’s another unrecognized piece of the puzzle that I believe is driving much of our discontent. And it’s right in your pocket.
Related: Social Comparison – Two-sided Sword That We Should Be Careful To
We, humans, love to compare ourselves to the people around us. Even when we are reasonably happy with what we have, once we compare ourselves to someone who has something better we become dissatisfied. You may have experienced a similar effect watching episodes of Keeping up with the Kardashians. Interestingly, this social comparison tendency seems to be innate in primates and has been shown even in animal models.
Frans de Waal has an enlightening and entertaining Ted Talk where he shows an experiment he conducted on capuchin monkeys illustrating social comparison and resource acquisition in much the same way humans do:
The experiment goes like this…
There are two monkeys in adjacent cages. They are rewarded for handing a researcher outside the cage a stone. The first monkey successfully gives the scientist a stone and is rewarded with a piece of cucumber.
Monkey #1 is satisfied and enjoys his reward.
Then monkey #2 completes the same task, but is given a grape which he eats with relish. Monkeys like grapes a great deal more than cucumbers so when they are tested again, things get interesting.
During the second round of tests, monkey #1 once again successfully hands the researcher a stone and is given a cucumber. He puts the cucumber to his lips, looks at the researcher, then reaches outside the cage, throws the piece of cucumber at the scientist and shakes the cage.
On the second round, monkey #2 once again enjoys a grape. As you might imagine, by the third round monkey #1 appears positively outraged by the cucumber. Shaking his cage, making noise, throwing cucumbers at the researchers and so forth.
What was once fine—the cucumber—is now no longer even acceptable in light of the possibility of enjoying a grape.
Data on income disparities in people show similar results. The amount of money you make is not a good indicator of life satisfaction alone. Rather it’s the rank of your income within a comparison group that seems to matter most.
(4) We see this quite clearly in communities where income disparity is highest. A measure sometimes called The Robin Hood index plots household incomes in specific neighborhoods on a single graph. In places where the Robin Hood index is highest, we see greater instances of violence and homicide.
(5) It’s not just the amount of money people make, but income inequality that seems to drive these behaviors. This kind of social comparison probably started as an adaptive behavior in animals as much as 540 million years ago.
How do we know this?
Well, our ability to compare is connected to the ability to choose between richer and leaner reinforcement schedules. If you didn’t do that, it would be really bad from a survival standpoint.