A downward comparison is a psychological/philosophical phenomenon in which a person evaluates the goodness of some object by contrasting it with an object he/she deems to be worse (or, in all technicality, “less good”). This is useful in ethics when evaluating “the lesser of two evils” or even in economics when trying to make a decision between different, unwanted, but ultimately necessary outcomes.
It is more dangerous when it occurs in a person’s self-appraisal. A downward comparison does not tell one how good he is, only whether or not there are others worse off. While occasionally useful, downward comparisons must be balanced with their counterpart, upward comparisons to give an idea of where you stand in terms of the things you care about.
For example, it might be very important to me that I am an ethical person. I put great personal value on making the right decision in ethically tempting situations (I wouldn’t, for example, steal money from a blind person not because I can’t but because I feel that I shouldn’t). I put such great value on this trait, in fact, that it is central to my self-concept – it’s very important that I see myself as an ethical person. I maintain my sense of self but constantly comparing myself to infamous historical dictators. After all, I am much more ethical than Idi Amin, or Stalin, or Pol Pot… the list can go on. Since, my reasoning goes, I have not committed the wholesale slaughter of thousands of innocent people (nor could I imagine myself doing so if given the opportunity), I must be an ethical person.
It doesn’t take a lot of brain power to see how quickly my reasoning can be picked apart – being better than Stalin simply means that I’m not one of the most brutal despots in the history of the world. This fact says absolutely nothing about my absolute standing as an ethical person. I could be cheating on my wife, victimizing my employees, or voting for the Conservative party. All of these are clearly unethical acts that are not in any way comparable to mass murder, but still pretty heartless. However, because I am relying on downward comparisons to inform my self-image, I don’t ever have to consider whether or not my self-opinion is justified (or at least not until I’ve murdered a few hundred people). All I have to do is make sure I am not the worst, and I can continue to believe anything I want about myself.
The same argument can be made about entirely upward comparisons – that you’d feel terrible about yourself for not being the best. I would argue that it is unlikely that someone would completely despair of ever being good enough when compared to the best, but that’s simply a belief statement, not a rational argument. The fact is that without making both upward and downward comparisons, it is not possible to have an accurate self-assessment.
Why am I talking about this? Two words:
Who watches this crap? Why on Earth would anyone want to give up valuable time watching orange monkeys parade around with behavior that is only matched in its ridiculousness by their haircuts? What possible benefit could one gain from viewing this show?
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for the entertainment value of television. Not every show needs to educate its audience or deal with heavy, hard-hitting issues, but you should at the very least walk away having learned some sort of lesson – whether it be the resolution of some ethical situation or a new way of dealing with your friends more positively… even the Naked Man had some value!
When I asked this question to friends, the response I got was invariably “it’s just harmless fun” or “they’re so stupid it’s funny”, but what I heard most of all was “they are more stupid than I am, and that makes me feel better.” You want to know how I know this? Because I do it too. I used to watch Maury Povitch on days when I didn’t feel like going into the office on time. Almost without an exception, there would be an unemployed, illiterate, lazy moron who had, against all laws of nature, managed to spawn a child with some equally repulsive woman who now was “900% sure” that this particular waste of skin, and not the 4-5 other wastes of skin she’d slept with that month, was the sperm donor. Why did I watch this show? Aside from my deep-seated fear of accidentally fathering a child and cheering when DNA proved that the dude is not the father, it made me feel better about myself. Even though I was sitting on the couch in my bathrobe at 10:00 am on a weekday, surely I was better off than these throwbacks!
Again, it doesn’t take a lot of work to pick apart the gigantic holes in my logic. So what if I was better than they? So what if I wasn’t scraping the bottom of the barrel of humanity? I saw my smug self-satisfaction reflected on the faces of the audience members, whose lives were so incomplete as to attend a taping of the Maury Povitch show (unless they went for lulz). I switched my perspective, and realized that I was exactly the same as the audience, and there were a lot of people who were doing much more with their lives. So I got my ass off the couch, showered, and went to get some work done.
“Well that’s great”, you might be saying, “but it’s just a harmless television show”. I disagree with your use of the term “harmless”. There is harm in watching these kinds of shows, insofar as it encourages us to think of ourselves as superior. We become complacent in our search for excellence. We allow opportunities to improve slip through our fingers because ‘at least we’re not as bad as _____.’ My reply: so what?
There’s a much more drastic example of the dangers of downward comparisons – Canada’s health care system. Compared to other OECD countries, health care in Canada costs far more per capita and delivers, at best, equal-quality care. However, instead of taking dramatic steps to improve the state of our system, we sit back on our laurels and say “at least we’re not as bad as the USA.” The American system sucks; nobody’s denying that. But to compare ourselves to the worst and think that somehow that justifies our near-total inaction for wholesale change is the same logic that kept me unshowered and on the couch.
Here’s my point. While it’s important to feel good about yourself, that kind of reassurance is best for all when it comes from positive identification with those we wish to emulate, not from distancing ourselves from those we hate. Simple downward comparison will never move us out of the status quo of mediocrity. While not everyone can be the best, that’s not an excuse for not trying our best. The more positive examples we surround ourselves with, the more motivation we have to improve (and the more models of improvement we have at our disposal). The more we soothe ourselves by allowing ourselves to be lulled by downward comparisons, the more likely we are to stay exactly where we are, and the less likely we are to make life better for ourselves or for others.