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Expanding the Comparative Scope

 

Measuring up to distant others: Expanding and contracting the comparative scope

People are constantly comparing to others: whether in experiences, possessions, opinions, or achievements. Research suggests that people generally choose similar others to compare to; in this research I suggest that dissimilar others can be useful too—specifically when the thing people want to learn is abstract.

For instance, I gave people the chance to compare the actions or the values that improved their lives to those that improved someone else’s. In other words, people had the chance to learn about life improvement from someone near or distant. Values are more abstract than actions because they provide overarching rules on how to behave, so we predicted that people would be more interested in comparing to distant others when they were comparing values than actions.

Participants responded to a "Life Improvement Survey" that was either about their Actions...

Participants responded to a "Life Improvement Survey" that was either about their Actions...

 

 

 

...or their Values. 

...or their Values. 


 
They then indicated how interested they would be in comparing the answers they gave to the answers of a hypothetical person in a variety of different places. 

They then indicated how interested they would be in comparing the answers they gave to the answers of a hypothetical person in a variety of different places. 

 

Results confirmed that people were just as interested in comparing to distant others when they compared values, but significantly less interested in comparing to distant others when they compared actions.

People exhibit varying amounts of interest in comparing to different comparison targets according to whether they are comparing actions (low-level) or values (high-level). When people are focused on actions, they show significantly less interest in comparing as the target gets farther away. By contrast, when people are focused on values, they show about the same amount of interest in comparing, regardless of whether they are comparing to someone from their own city or to someone from Mumbai.

People exhibit varying amounts of interest in comparing to different comparison targets according to whether they are comparing actions (low-level) or values (high-level). When people are focused on actions, they show significantly less interest in comparing as the target gets farther away. By contrast, when people are focused on values, they show about the same amount of interest in comparing, regardless of whether they are comparing to someone from their own city or to someone from Mumbai.

The results have implications for the things we learn from those who are not like us. While we may learn things like good playlists from our friends, when we travel and encounter strange people and places, we may learn broader, bigger things—like how to be a good family member, or how to live a good life.