For most of us, comparative thinking has likely become inherent. However, we need to be aware of what it is and how it can harm us. In this article I discuss what comparative thinking is, why it’s helpful, and how we can use it to our advantage.
You do it every day, but do you know what it is?
Comparative Thinking—the What
Comparative thinking is a learning tool. It’s when we analyze similarities and differences in order to make cognitive connections a.k.a. make sense of the world. Without it we may not be able to learn at all. Think about it, how do we know a dog is a dog, and a cat is a cat? Well, the one 4 legged thingy barks while the other one meows and hisses.
Not the momma!baby Sinclair
One of the first comparisons we make is when we’re babies. When we make the differentiation between those who are mother and those who are not—I guess we pick up quick when the one big creature symbolizes comfort and the others don’t.
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Why Comparative Thinking Is helpful
The benefits of comparative thinking are without bounds. It’s the unlimited potential in our ability to learn complex topics. When we make comparisons we not only learn general ideas, and create the ability to identify complex topics, we also build upon our critical thinking skills, our memory and our comprehension.
Comparisons also help us to understand complex topics, or to help ideas resonate. For example, metaphors, smilies and other figures of speech.
It can be helpful when we are making environmental or economic decisions like nuclear vs. windmill energy. It can also be helpful when we are making difficult decisions in our lives: like one opportunity over another. Do I take the higher paying job and move or stay local with lower pay?
Anyone who’s seen Gilmore Girls knows the pro-con list. I guess I’ll also mention the disastrous pro-con list from Friend’s here—even though it did more harm than good.
Why We Need to Be Aware of Comparative Thinking
Comparative thinking left unchecked is the poster child for: “too much of a good thing.”
We use comparative thinking our entire lives and it’s fair to say that at one point it becomes intuitive. So intuitive that we may not even realize we are doing it. Honestly, have you ever thought about comparison thinking before reading this article?
While this can be extremely beneficial, it can also hurt us if we let it go unchecked. Because while it’s beneficial in the large majority of life situations, it’s not beneficial in others. And even those the situations where it isn’t beneficial may be fewer, they can have a larger impact on our mental and emotional well-being.
Since comparative thinking is likely our default, we can be using it in situations where it will harm us. Meaning, we are thinking ineffectively. However, because we rely on comparative thinking so frequently—and we are likely not aware of other ways of thinking—we cannot analyze (or use comparative thinking) in order to realize the best thought process for certain situations.
Sound confusing? Just think of it like: you need to know there’s such a thing as a box in order to understand if you are trapped in a box.
What We Need to Do to Improve
We are taught how to think using comparison, and comparative thinking can help us effectively analyze and understand situations, but we are not taught how to effectively, comparatively think. That is, we are not taught the limits to the benefits.
There there are several areas in which comparative thinking can hurt us. For instance, when we are focused on comparing ourselves to others we may try to fit in and forget to appreciate our differences and who we are as a person. Or, when we are tying something new we may compare ourselves to someone who’s an expert.
As with most other things, awareness is the first step. We need to be aware of the issue before we can resolve it. Take an inventory of when you compare yourself to others. It is at the gym when people lifting weights? Or maybe at work with colleagues? How about when you’re looking at social media? Or when you see a photoshopped model in a magazine?
Once you are aware of it give it a value check and consider if it’s beneficial for you (and your mental health) in that moment.