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Comparing ourselves favorably to others is something we all do. And we also stimulate it in our children; for example, as we praise them when they outperform others. But social comparisons can lead to a constant desire for superiority over others and that underlies narcissism. Çisem Gürel, PhD researcher in Child Development and Education, studied the potential of an alternative: comparing one’s present self to one’s past self.

‘Temporal comparisons are an alternative that do not feed into narcissism. Instead, they support self-improvement and healthier social relationships.’ Monday 5 December she will defend her PhD thesis at the University of Amsterdam.

Across the world, we offer children many opportunities to compare themselves favorably to others, argues Gürel. ‘TV shows, sports tournaments, and contests award children who outperform others. Schools select and publicly announce the “best student”. Parents and teachers praise children for outperforming others.’ Although our desire to make our children feel competent and proud is mostly well-intended, Gürel warns for the negative consequences of this downward comparison.

‘Comparing oneself to others can be so pervasive that children still compare how they stack up against others when this information is not salient’, explains Gürel. ‘This contributes to a constant desire for superiority over others. A characteristic that underlies narcissism.’ Adolescents with high levels of narcissism are at risk for several maladjustments, such as aggression, addiction, anxiety, and poor interpersonal relationships.

Another type of comparison

Gürel wanted to find out if comparing to one’s past self could give children the same developmental benefits as social comparisons, like self-enhancement, but without the unwanted effects of social comparisons. ‘Can temporal comparison shift children’s mindset away from a desire for superiority and toward self-improvement?’ To answer this question she examined social and temporal comparisons among youth of 8 years and up. Eight is the age that social and temporal comparisons become a tool for self-evaluation. She looked at both downward comparisons - comparing oneself favorably to others versus one’s own past self- and upward comparisons - comparing oneself unfavorably to others versus one’s own past self.

Gürel conducted an experimental study in 12 primary and secondary schools, collected qualitative and quantitative data from 583 participants aged between 8-18, conducted a daily-diary study with 389 secondary school students aged between 11-15, a cross-sectional study involving 382 adolescents, and a longitudinal study involving 389 adolescents.

Social comparisons maintain higher levels of narcissism

Gürel finds that adolescents with higher narcissism levels make more downward social and temporal comparisons in their everyday life. That means they mainly compare themselves favorably to others and to their own past selves. ‘But only downward social comparisons maintained narcissism levels over time, and not downward comparisons with their past selves.’ She also found that self-esteem was not really related to downward social comparisons, ‘in fact, low self-esteem was maintained through upward social comparisons—comparing oneself unfavorably to others.’

‘These findings collectively show that comparison strategies play an important role in the maintenance of self-views in adolescents’, concludes Gürel. ‘They suggest that social comparisons maintain higher levels of narcissism and lower levels of self-esteem over time. But also that temporal comparisons are an alternative to social comparisons that do not feed into narcissism.’

Implications for interventions

The findings have tentative implications for interventions that aim to simultaneously raise self-esteem and curtail narcissism. ‘Children are quite capable of making temporal comparisons that offer benefits without the unwanted effects that social comparisons have. This suggests that temporal comparisons might be a means by which interventions can contribute to a healthier self-image in children.’

Interventions could support the shifting of mindsets from social comparison to temporal comparison, and from competition to collaboration. ‘In secondary schools, for example, this might be achieved by making improvement trajectories more salient to adolescents via report cards and feedback, and by assigning collaborative tasks that foster interdependence in students.’

PhD thesis details

Çisem Gürel, 2022, ‘“Am I Better Than I Was Before?” Social and Temporal Comparisons in Childhood and Adolescence.’ Promotor:  prof. dr. G. Overbeek , co-promotor:  dr. E. Brummelman

Time and location

Monday 5 December, 14.00, Agnietenkapel, Amsterdam