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On Comparing Yourself to Others


N.B. This post is a one that I have written in some form at least twice before, but it is one that I re-read myself often when I need the reminder, so I figured it was time for a refresher.

Every mother knows what it’s like to look at another mother, compare herself internally, and come up wanting. Every woman has at least one friend who always has a clean house, never yells at her son, and always looks immaculate. That reality is just not the same for everyone, though. When I fall into the trap of comparing myself with other mothers, I go back to my political science training. Sound odd? It actually makes perfect sense!

Game theory is a kind of analysis used by social scientists and economists to predict outcomes. Behavior is a key component of game theory analysis, as are preferences. Each person is a composition of all her preferences. One unbreakable law of game theory states that it is impossible to make interpersonal comparisons of utility. What does that mean in plain English? Each person values different things and at different levels. An example should further illuminate this idea. “Jane” places a great deal of value on having a clean house, clean children, and clean clothes. Naturally, she will direct her efforts to this end. “Nicole” greatly values creative expression (both hers and her children’s) and her home-based business; she prioritizes housework behind just about everything else in her life.

Would it make any sense for Nicole to compare herself with Jane? She might look at Jane’s orderly and clean existence and have a pang of envy, but is she willing to change her preferences and values in order to achieve Jane’s ends? Likely not. Jane, on the other hand, may be slightly in awe of the never-ending output of Nicole’s painting, sculpting, Lego-ing sons, but may not be willing to endure what such creativity does to her house, given the fact that she values cleanliness. Although each woman may, at times, feel that she is doing something wrong, if she hearkens back to who she is and what she values, she should realize that there really is no comparison to be made. Some women insist that their children clean their rooms before they leave the house or do anything else. These women likely set that example for their children. Some women are always willing to drop their own housework in order to play with or read to their children – or themselves!

Neither of these women is “right.” Rather, each is living her life according to her own unique preference orderings. There is no universal set of rankings which can be enforced on all women, because women – and their families - are all so different. Comparing oneself can be a useful exercise if one is not living according to her own preferences – if she is not running her house, her family, or herself according to what brings her the most utility (think happiness). In that case, it makes sense to look around and see what else is out there. If, on the other hand, a woman knows what she values and has some idea of how that translates into running her household, then comparisons become completely meaningless. So Jane has a clean house? Nicole is not willing to put the brakes on her kids’ creativity in any way, negating the possibility of having the kind of house Jane does. So Nicole’s children are artistically prolific? Jane is not willing to have her children grow up in mess and chaos for the sake of their art. She believes that an orderly house leads to an orderly mind. Neither woman is right, and both are right! Game theory is a fascinating study in its own right, but it’s amazing how many of its principles are both derived from and can enlighten real life. Considering the question of comparisons scientifically can be an incredibly useful way to banish them from your thoughts forever!

Oh, and that idea about not being able to make interpersonal comparisons of utility? That is a really helpful thing to share with your kids because, really, you can't make interpersonal comparisons of a lot of things - pain is one that comes to mind. Kids have a hard time understanding that what doesn't hurt one of them a whole heck of a lot may be positively punishing to another one. Pain feels different to different people. When Therese (now 15) got her braces, she didn't complain at all. When Mary-Catherine (12) got hers last week, the whole world knew that she was hurting for daaaaayyyys. Different kids. Therese has had so much pain for so long that braces were a mere blip on her radar. Similarly, when I was in labor for 23 hours with Therese and the nurse wanted me to rate my pain, I really had to think about it. I'd rather be in labor than have some of my migraines (hey - at least you get a baby out of the deal!). Every single nurse (I was the only one laboring at the moment) kept telling me it was okay to make noise. I was like 1st - I'm a lady. 2nd - it could be so much worse. (always remember - it can always be so much worse!). So, no comparisons of interpersonal utility. Go blow someone's mind.

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