Christmas can be a very difficult time of the year for many. For instance, there are the memories of loved ones lost, there are financial pressures, and there are the physical and emotional labour of family get-togethers. Plus, everywhere we turn – in the movies, magazines, stores, the street and, of course, social media – people seem to be having a better time than we do.
In fact, when it comes to social lives, most of us tend to think that others have a better time than we do. According to a paper recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, we tend to think that others lead busier and richer social lives than us, and that they are better connected than we are.
The paper is entitled “Home alone: Why people believe others’ social lives are richer than their own” and is available here (paid access, only; I could not find an open access version of the paper, unfortunately). It was authored by Sebastian Deri, Shai Davidai and Thomas Gilovich.
Drawing on findings from 11 studies with diverse samples (college students, MTurk respondents, shoppers at a local mall, and an online panel), the authors begin to unpack the reasons why most of us feel that our social lives are worse than other people’s. They say that there are three key reasons why this is the case.
First, our mental process:
(W)hen evaluating one’s social life (…) the mind naturally turns to other people and their lives. Rather than focusing inward, assessments of one’s social life spontaneously direct one’s attention outward—to the social lives of others. (…) Thus, whereas people largely ignore others when evaluating their standing on non-social dimensions they are more attuned to what others are like when evaluating their social lives. (p. 873)
Second, how we define rich social lives. The quality of one’s social lives can be as important as – if not more than – quantity of experiences. However, when it comes to defining ‘rich social life’, we tend to focus on quantitative dimensions such as how many friends people have, how many groups they belong to, how many social events they attend, how many countries they visited, and so on.
And, third, the type of information available for comparison:
The external focus that comes with evaluating the richness of one’s social life makes people vulnerable to an influential source of bias (…) Because people are disproportionately exposed—in both their daily lives and through social media—to unusually sociable others, they naturally think of such people and their habits when reflecting on their own social lives. (…) Exceptionally social others are more likely to spring to mind spontaneously as “social benchmarks”. (…) (B)ecause extroverts and socialites spring to mind more readily than introverts and recluses, people compare themselves to a tough benchmark and conclude that their social lives are subpar. (p. 873)
The authors go on to note that those leading a quiet life (e.g., studying, watching TV or reading) are less likely than the extrovert, sociable ones to post pictures on social media about what they are doing, , or to mention it in conversation, no matter how much they are enjoying their quiet time. Thus, the stimuli available for comparing social lives, and for assessing how rich our own social life is, are skewed towards busy, active, happy times.
So, this festive season, when you catch a glimpse of someone else’s life through social media or a window, and you find yourself thinking that they are having a better time than you, remember: it is a trick of the mind; quantity of experiences is not better than quality; and, what you see is not the whole picture.