(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.
Animals have to be able to look around and see which field is more likely to yield good food. As socialization developed, this ability to compare stretched into the realm of the community as well.
If you look around and see another group or person is doing better than you, you may sidle up to the other group and make friends. If you’ve got a hunk of meat and I don’t, I’m going to go over and stand next to you. Maybe you’ll share or I might even be able to steal it from you.
Fast forward 540 million years and we have developed technology and cognitive abilities based on relational learning that put this process on steroids. We don’t have to get angry over cucumbers – we can compare ourselves with little more than cognitive labels. Who is hot, who is cool, or anything in between. We can be upset over what is fair or unfair, based on complex ideas of “fairness.” That process was known even in Biblical times, as the story of the workers in the vineyard shows (Matt 20: 1-16).
But now science and technology – that mountain of achievement based on human cognition – has given us the capacity to compare ourselves to anything or anybody, anywhere or anytime. And that brings us back to your smartphone.
A Tool for Social Comparison
Right now, you have a device in your pocket or purse that allows you to carry out social comparisons like the ones illustrated above constantly and with ease. It’s called your smartphone. With it, you can see what’s going on anywhere in the world at any time.
Think about what this creates. No matter how successful you are, you are not a gazillionaire. And you can see how gazillionaires live with the push of a button. You can see how the rich and famous life, what movie stars do in their daily lives, what they have that you don’t, how they live that you can’t.
The disparity is transparent, and it pushes ancient psychological triggers we developed for important evolutionary reasons.
So how do we manage this?
We aren’t going to create a world that’s good enough for everybody. It’s not possible. Not everyone is going to become Bill Gates. Even if we could, it would never be enough. After all, most Americans are wealthy beyond imagination in comparison to the rest of the world community and we still have epidemic rates of anxiety, depression, and a host of other mental illnesses.
And we’re not going backward. No one is going to take out their iPhones and blow them up. What we have to do is create modern minds for the modern world.
The question is what does that mean and how do we do that?
The modern world is one in which we have to be Olympic class psychological flexibility experts, just to get along. We have to teach and find a way to be more emotionally, cognitively, and behaviorally open and aware, we have to learn how to take the perspective of others, to feel a little of what they feel, and to stick with those feelings even when it gets rough.
We need to create a more accepting, mindful, values-based, caring, compassionate world, and we have to start right here, right now in our hearts, in our families, in our schools, in our community, in our culture, our nation, and our world. The tools are out there, right now. Heck, you can find them on your smartphone.