Post No.: 0259
‘Social comparison theory’ is about our public image and impressions, and what matters to people are relative comparisons rather than absolute positions – like ‘in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king’, or in a land of extreme vanity, a person who ‘only’ takes four selfies a day isn’t considered vain! Social standards are thus never fixed but can change. We compare to others to understand how we should define ourselves (e.g. how pretty we are, how learned we are, how kind we are, etc.) but whom we hang around with or follow might be a skewed group one way or the other (e.g. if we hang around too many clueless people then we might consider ourselves as clever!)
This is why inequality is problematic – people care about their relative wealth to others, not their absolute wealth, thus more people will feel far happier if everyone felt more equal. Whether we think we’re wealthy, beautiful or intelligent, for instance, depends on whom we compare relatively with – so we can feel poor as a millionaire if we hang around billionaires, ugly if we compare ourselves to edited and ‘enhanced’ images of people, or hard-working if we hang around lazier people. It’s the perception that matters more than the reality too; albeit actual power is proportional to wealth, and power can only ever be understood in relative terms (e.g. you may have the power to destroy your enemies within 15 minutes, but whether that’s fast depends on how fast your enemies can destroy you).
Social comparisons tend to be superficial (e.g. about how people look) and this has therefore been exacerbated on social media. It’s not so much about natural selection, which is more about absolutes (you only really need so much food and shelter, for instance, to survive and if you’re alive then you’re alive), but about sexual selection, which is about relative social comparisons with others.
Social comparisons mean that many people, in private at least, don’t really want their competitors in the mating market to do what they’ve done or have what they have that makes them stand perceptually above others in status (e.g. a qualification or accomplishing an unusual feat i.e. a point of difference they can brag about that others can’t).
It’s about sex. Being rich is about sex too (the perceived status of the ability to provide for any partner and offspring more comfortably than others). So beyond mere survival (which doesn’t require relatively much and certainly doesn’t require ‘conspicuous consumption’) – social comparisons are more-or-less essentially all about sex, whether people consciously understand why they’re driven to socially compare or not. We are, in essence, genetically pre-programmed creatures – what we do, it’s mostly, directly or indirectly, ultimately about reproduction, to pass our genes onto the next generation. Our (perceived) image, reputation, status, popularity, money (beyond having enough to survive) and ability to provide are primarily about sexual selection. That’s the evolved reason, although we may subsequently take pleasure in things, such as seeking fame, in their own right (just like we evolved to eat to ultimately survive, but we can also eat when we don’t need the calories at all, and not understand why we’re doing so, just that it feels pleasurable to).
Although there are exceptions where couples choose not to have any children in their lifetimes – in the vast majority of cases, romantic love and certainly lust are ultimately about reproduction too, at least initially. It’s about mating (mainly lust driven) and the bonds to help look after and raise any resultant offspring together (mainly love driven), in which cooperation (although with anyone and any number of people) was particularly more critical in the harsher environments humans from tens of millennia ago and earlier had to live in. Other animals that also conceive only up to a few fragile offspring in their lifetimes and/or teach knowledge to them tend to demonstrate parental pair bonding too, or at least a fluffy bond between the mother and offspring. Some animals even use the extended family to look after offspring collectively, and love (the pleasure of being together as well as the pain of a loss) is what keeps them together for the increased chances of the group’s survival.
Now some argue that polygamy or polyamory is the way humans ‘ought’ to be. Married people still care about their public image even though they’re now married to someone who’s accepted them as they are. Why continue competing against members of the same gender (intrasexual selection)? Who cares what anyone else of the opposite gender thinks anymore (intersexual selection)? (Or can’t spouses rely on ‘for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health’?) But perhaps that’s like continuing eating even though one doesn’t need the calories anymore (instincts over-firing), or perhaps it’s akin to an entirely raw food diet – that was the past and humans, as a species, have built fires and learnt to cook so that more nutrients can be made bioavailable from any food foraged or captured, and food can be made safer to consume too, and so human culture has therefore moved on. In arguably the same way, having multiple partners was arguably the past, and the culture has progressed and moved on from that to respect and value loyalty and commitment for the sake of the children. Religion played a key role. Sexually transmitted infections may have also had something to do with encouraging monogamy? This isn’t against consensual polygamous relationships or to say that monogamy suits everyone, but to point out how monogamy culturally evolved to be the dominant norm over time.
Love can be broken down into chemicals and reproductive evolution (i.e. cold science) if we want to – but few people really want to. Yet the denial of something doesn’t suddenly make that something no longer true. (And not wanting to view love in this way could itself be studied and understood scientifically too i.e. in the field of evolutionary psychology or human behaviour, because there’s a common pattern here too!) It doesn’t mean love (and life itself) is no longer special, beautiful and totally awe-inspiring if viewed via the lens of science though – in the same way food still tastes amazing even though we know it’s just a bunch of chemical reactions. Studying our emotions, desires and feelings doesn’t make them any less valid or real – please read Post No.: 0256 for more about this. (Plus perhaps if we can still love despite all we learn about it then it’d be a true love and not merely a blind love?) Meow.
…Anyway, it’d make survival-and-reproductive-success sense if sexual selection exactly matched what natural selection selects (e.g. selecting a mate who is actually a good hunter or will look after any offspring, rather than one who just looks like she/he might!) But sexual selection and natural selection don’t always accord. For example, for humans, eye colour doesn’t seem to confer any survival or breeding advantage or disadvantage on its own, yet rather than be a non-issue in sexual selection, a potential mate having a specific eye colour seems to be very important to many people in sexual selection, at least during first impressions.
Even in wild nature, some sexual selection strategies even seemingly work against natural selection efficacy, such as bright colours to attract mates can also attract predators – if an organism survives regardless then it has proven itself to be a survivor, but maybe it could pass on genes that’d make an offspring have an even better chance of survival if it weren’t so bright or encumbered during the mating seasons?! Alas, evolution hasn’t figured out a way for organisms to be psychic, and so judging by superficial appearances became the instinct. Pure instincts evidently work most of the time (well except for those millions of species that have become extinct so far!) but it could be better, especially in environments where technologies can increase the possibilities of faking appearances of good health and fitness, such as in the modern human world.
The parallel signal being made (or attempted) when it comes to human conspicuous consumption is that ‘in spite of these hindrances, profligacy and/or flashy behaviours, I’m still alive’, which is inferred to mean that ‘I’m really good at surviving and I’m therefore great mating material’, but really such people would logically be even better survivors if they weren’t so profligate or flashy. Rich people have frittered money away to become poor, people who finance their luxurious consumption via debt live a lie, and individual humans being wasteful of Earthly resources may signal their mating prowess to potential mates and therefore get their genes passed onto the next generation but such behaviours are directly risking the long-term existence of the entire human species (or at least human civilisation as we know it) collectively in the bigger picture, precisely because of this profligate behaviour(!) Our instincts evolved for passing our own genes onto the next generation but evidently not for considering the consequences several generations down the line. Raw instincts often don’t know when too much is too much. So our instincts are often inferior to education, particularly when it concerns considering the bigger picture and long-term.
The Grim Reaper can never be fooled when it comes to natural selection but humans can be, and regularly are, fooled when it comes to sexual selection. (I’ve been acquainted with the Grim Reaper – his name is Mort.) Intersexual sexual selection is largely based on crude proxies or oversimplified shortcut heuristics that attempt to determine a potential partner’s probabilistic natural selection survival chances, and in turn any offspring’s. Our sexual selection instincts are typically superficial, whereas Mother Nature doesn’t care about what an organism looks or sounds like per se – she only judges and preserves life according to what organisms do i.e. according to how well an organism ‘does’ perform, not whether an organism believes or portrays it ‘could’. (I’ve also met Mother Nature – her name is Anne.)
Hence the problem with sexual selection is that it’s overly concerned with judging how others look or sound, or how one looks and sounds – the imperfect heuristic is assuming that ‘if it looks like she/he could then it must mean she/he can’, but of course this isn’t always accurate, especially in this day and age of makeup, photo filters and narrower comfort zones for being raised knowing only luxury and comfort for many people. This instinct to judge by appearances is frequently exploited by mimicry or faking strategies.
So natural selection regards being the part, whilst sexual selection mainly regards looking/sounding the part. They may somewhat correlate but, especially in an environment of image manipulation being par for the course on social media, the instinct of judging by appearances is increasingly becoming less reliable. (In some cases, for instance, fans can start to believe they know a famous person very well according to their carefully PR-managed images, but these fans will actually hardly know them at all.) Some will argue though that if ‘enhancing mere appearances’ didn’t fool enough people then people wouldn’t try it and keep doing it.
And what’s most troublesome is that even when people know something is fake (e.g. fake breasts, which have nothing to do with genetic health or an improved ability to breastfeed any potential offspring) – many people still desire it(!) That’s the powerful influence of pre-programmed instincts and the folly of always listening to your instincts. Education beats tectonically-slow evolution so spend the time and effort to learn and trust in education more. Researched conclusions might sometimes match with instinctive conclusions, but research will provide the more reliable guidance if one doesn’t want to be fooled.
We socially compare, and we’re superficial, but I wish we were smarter and didn’t do so as much. We’re not psychic, but rather than therefore judge and trust ever more what’s portrayed on the surfaces, we should take the time to look deeper.