On most subjective and socially desirable dimensions, we tend to exhibit self-serving bias. We perceive ourselves as more moral than most others, healthier than others, more productive at work, better able to get along with others, and even better drivers. With apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “How do I love me? Let me count the ways.”
But most of us also experience a different sort of social misperception that’s biased in the opposite direction. First, a question: Who goes to more parties—you or others?
Across 11 studies, Cornell University’s Sebastian Deri and his colleagues found that university students, mall shoppers, and online respondents perceived others’ social lives to be more active than their own duller life. Other folks, it seems, party more, dine out more, and have more friends and fun.
Can you imagine why most people perceive their social lives as comparatively inactive?
Our social perceptions, according to the Deri team, suffer from biased information availability. We compare ourselves not to social reality but to what’s mentally accessible. We hear more about our friends’ activities than we do about the nonevents of their lives. If Alexis goes to a party, we’re more likely to hear about that than if she sits home looking over her toes at the TV.
Social media amplifies our sense of social disadvantage. People post selfies while out having fun—which we may browse while sitting home alone. Thus, our normal self-serving perceptions are overcome by a powerful social exposure bias.
The others-are-having-more-fun finding joins reports by Jean Twenge and her collaborators that the spread of smart phones and social media have precisely paralleled a recent increase in teen loneliness, depression, and suicide. Twenge reports that
Teens who visit social-networking sites every day but see their friends in person less frequently are the most likely to agree with the statements “A lot of times I feel lonely,” “I often feel left out of things,” and “I often wish I had more good friends.”
Does your life seem pallid compared to all the fun others seem to be having? Do you believe you are not one of the socially active “cool” people? Does your romantic life seem comparatively unexciting? Do you wish you could have as many friends as others seem to?
Well, be consoled: most of your friends feel the same way.
As Teddy Roosevelt long ago surmised, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”