Why I’m better than him, but worse than her

Gaussian Curve is the name of a music trio – an Italian, a Dutchman and a Scot. I’m not starting with a culturally insensitive joke though. The direction I want to take is a mathematical one; the statistical Gaussian Curve from where the band takes its name.

A Gaussian Curve describes the normal distribution of things, like intelligence, height, or weight. You may recognise it as a Bell Curve below. In 1986, McCormick, Walkey and Green looked at how drivers rated themselves on skill level and risk taking in their driving. They tested 178 people and 80% said they were above average. A figure which is clearly impossible, of course. 

Normal distribution on Wikipedia

This tendency to overstate our skills is replicated elsewhere. At Stanford University 87% of MBA students rated their academic performance as above the median. The University of Nebraska–Lincoln also ran a survey where 68% of their faculty scored themselves in the top quarter for teaching ability – 94% ranked themselves as above average. 

Social psychology calls this Illusory Superiority, where we exaggerate our skills and abilities when comparing ourselves to others. The problem is that if we all say we’re above average, then we downgrade things for everyone else. “Above average” slips to “average” and we’re back in the middle. And who wants to be average, when we could be special? 

But Wikipedia tell us that this isn’t universal:  “A vast majority of the literature on illusory superiority originates from studies on participants in the United States.” The research suggests it might depend on culture. “Some studies indicate that East Asians tend to underestimate their own abilities in order to improve themselves and get along with others.”

In some cultures (work or societal) we might find ourselves in a race to the top. Think financial traders who believe they’re better than their peers and together heat up the market. This would be in Individualistic cultures, like North America, Western Europe or Australia where we tend to focus on our own needs over the group’s. But the opposite is true in a collective society, such as those found in Asia, South America and Africa. Here the needs of the group are prioritised over those of the individual. 

Sometimes we like to stand out and be different but sometimes we just like to fit in. Pluralistic Ignorance is another social psychology idea. This is where we assume members of our group all think a different way to us. We believe everyone is aligned and to ensure we don’t stand out we play along. What we don’t realise is that all the others are sceptics too; they just haven’t voiced it, because, like us, they just want to belong. Since everyone believes that everyone else believes, we collectively veer off a cliff as one. 

We see this in the workplace too, where we’re caught in a spider web of perceived expectations and norms. I’ve interviewed over 100 people going through career change and David was one of my interviewees. He spent some time reflecting back on his career. “I made the mistake of getting stuck back into what seems like the societal norms of getting a job because I had pressures of family and stuff like that. But I think I should have tried something different. Follow the dreams. Follow the stars.” 

Gina agrees. “I need to stop comparing myself and doing what I think other people think is the right thing. And just do what I think is the right thing.” Comparisons can lead to self-doubt and unhappiness and social media just adds fuel to the fire. We forget that the images and words are carefully curated.  We only get half the reality. 

Cecilia compared herself to her friends and colleagues. “Whether it’s on a personal level or a professional level I definitely had that real struggle last year thinking ‘I haven’t achieved anything. I haven’t got as far ahead in my career as some peers. I haven’t had a family. I haven’t got a house. I haven’t done any of these things. They’ve done all of this and I’ve done nothing comparatively.’” She knows this way of thinking is not that helpful. “I’ve realised it’s a really unhealthy thing to do. It’s always really, really bad for you own self-esteem and self-worth when you do that.” 

So, what can we do to avoid this? Firstly, we need to remind ourselves that what we see of someone else’s life is not the full picture. They may appear to have an incredible job, wonderful holidays, a perfect partner, an amazing house… but we don’t know what is going on under the surface. Do they find their work meaningless and dispiriting? Maybe the holiday barely compensates for something awful that happened earlier in the year. Or perhaps they look at us and wish they had our lives instead. It’s a human trait to underplay what we have and overplay what we don’t.  

Secondly, we need to spend less time on social media. It really doesn’t help. The psychotherapist Alfred Adler once said “to be human is to have inferiority feelings” and in the age of social media it’s amplified a hundred-fold. Social comparison used to involve around 10-20 close relationships. In the digital universe there’s limitless potential – our average number of online ‘friends’ is over 300. And of course, we’re also rewarded just for looking. Former Facebook president, Sean Parker, describes Facebook as a “social validation feedback loop.” He admits the “like” button was deliberately introduced to give “a little dopamine hit” to drive continued use.  

Finally, we often compare up, rather than down. My husband and I once lived next door to the brother of a famous celebrity. And no, I won’t be naming names. One night we had dinner with the celebrity’s brother and heard this story. He told us that his famous brother was incredibly wealthy but still unhappy. Why? Because he compared himself to his uber-celebrity friends and felt unsuccessful – they had more houses, yachts and helicopters than he did. He also felt quite lonely, since he couldn’t share this particular problem with anyone else. He felt they might not understand. 

The Sociologist Leon Festinger talked about this back in 1954. We reduce our self-esteem when we compare ourselves to those who have more than us. But conversely, we raise our self-esteem when we compare ourselves to those less fortunate than us. So, try this on for size. Reflect on all those things we take for granted – three meals a day, a bed to sleep in at night, the freedom to make choices… like whether to listen to Gaussian Curve, or some other music band.


 This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

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