Have you ever felt like you were "less than" someone else, whether they did something to make you feel that way or you just automatically felt it? The odds are that your answer is YES and you've probably felt this way multiple times in your life.
What's happening in those moments when you compare yourself to someone else is something called Social Rank Theory (SRT) in evolutionary psychology. The idea of this theory is that we, as humans, have psychological responses to information we receive about our social rank/status. From an evolutionary perspective, this response serves the function of maintaining cohesion in social groups, which facilitates more or less access to resources depending on that rank.
So what does this mean?
Whether or not our particular society (as a whole) places value on social rank (i.e., in non-capitalistic and non-socialist societies, resources might be distributed by social class), we have an automatic psychological response to our social rank. Depending on where we live, that rank may be directly communicated and externally assigned or it might be our perceived rank based on how we feel we "stand" in our society based on indirect messages we've received (i.e., commercials placing social status on beauty).
As I got to learning more about SRT, I started to wonder how this might affect mental health. After all, most of us have experienced this feeling of comparing ourselves to others at least once in our lives and in my experience as a therapist, this doesn't always equate to feelings of joy and happiness.
In my research, I found a study by Wetherall, Robb, & O'Connor (2019) about social rank and depression and suicidal ideation (thoughts of suicide). They reviewed 70 records of studies that assessed social rank and depression and suicidal ideation. What they found was that, on average, as one's perception of their social rank decreased, depression symptoms and suicidal ideation increased. There were many other studies I found that showed the exact same findings.
This wasn't a surprise to me and likely isn't a surprise to you. How many times have you scrolled though Instagram and been bitten by the Comparison Bug? Because I'm a yoga teacher I follow a lot of other teachers, which means that I am constantly seeing gorgeous photos of beautiful people in impossible poses. The Bug bites me and I say, "I'm not as good as them" and thus the cycle starts. Or do you have a friend or colleague that you feel is more "successful" than you based on money or title? I've definitely struggled with this, too!
And, according to SRT, this is a part of our function as human beings.
If it's been shown time and time again that social rank does affect mental health, what can we do about it? How can we fight this thing that's psychologically damaging, but also once served an important function for our species and is completely engrained in us?
Well, for starters, we don't fight it. Most of us know from experience that if we try to "fight" our depression, anxiety, or stress, that the latter will win.
Understanding the process that is actually happening is step one, which we got an introduction to in this blog. I do encourage you to keep doing your own research though and learn more about SRT and social comparison in general.
After having the knowledge, we need to be compassionate with ourselves.
Don't beat yourself up for caring so much what other people think of you and where you "rank". Again, this is normal and HUMAN!
Third, start to question those automatic responses you have that we discussed earlier. For example, "Do I need to feel bad about myself because my friend told me how much money they make and I don't make as much?" Just because someone made you feel "less than" doesn't mean you need to keep feeling that way.
Finally, start to practice replacing those automatic responses with healthier ones, like "I'm happy for them that they make that amount of money".
This all, of course, occurs in the context of intersecting social identities in any given society. For many, race, gender, income, sexual identity, disability, and more greatly affects their rank in society, whether this rank is overtly or covertly communicated to them. This is where we all need to keep working to address the systemic issues of social rank and whether it's even a useful tool for where humanity is at today.