Ever felt like your peers have more pals than you do?
These days, with the rise of social media apps like Facebook and Instagram, it is easier than ever to benchmark the number of “friends” you have against your peers.
‘Tis human to compare
Decades of research in psychology suggest that social comparisons are a fundamental human tendency. We compare ourselves with others to evaluate and understand our abilities, our social standing and even our own feelings.
When making social comparisons, people generally see themselves coming out on top – or at least above average. That is, they are often overconfident about their abilities, rating themselves above average in health, attractiveness and intelligence.
Yet, there is at least one domain where people tend to think that they are doing worse than their peers: emotional experiences.
Previous research by one of our colleagues, Alex Jordan at the Harvard Medical School, found that people underestimate how often their peers experience negative emotions, like depression or stress, and overestimate how often they experience positive ones, like happiness, pride and hope.
The rise of social media
Social media is making it a lot harder to avoid comparing our own connectedness with that of our peers.
Since the inception of Facebook in 2004, more than a billion people have created Facebook accounts, and today, its website is the most visited in the world. Americans spend about 56 billion minutes on Facebook each month.
While some of this time is spent actively messaging other people, the typical user uses the majority of his or her time on Facebook observing other people without posting.
We believe others have more friends
To examine the beliefs that people have about their peers’ social lives and how they affect well-being, we surveyed first-year students during their transition to college life at the University of British Columbia, a large public institution in Vancouver, Canada.
Across two similar studies with a total of 1488 participants, we asked two key questions: How many friends do you have at university? And how many friends do you think other first-year students have? We also asked them to estimate the percentage of time that both themselves and their peers had spent socialising with new friends at the university in the past seven days.
A surprising share of students believed that their peers had more friends and spent more time socialising than they themselves did.
In our first study, 48 percent of first-year students believed their peers had more friends, whereas only 31 percent believed the reverse.
In our second study, the gap was even more pronounced: More than twice as many students believed that other first-years had more friends than they did rather than the other way around – 55 percent to 26 percent. Students also believed that their peers spent 24 percent of their time socialising with new friends at university as compared with the 20 percent for their personal estimate.
How this undermines happiness
In our second study, students also reported on their happiness and loneliness. To assess happiness and loneliness, students indicated their agreement with statements like “the conditions of my life are excellent” and “I see myself as a loner,” respectively.
Students who believed that their peers were doing better socially reported lower levels of life satisfaction and greater loneliness than students who thought that they had more friends.
Importantly, these results were stable even after we accounted for the number of friends that students had. In other words, even when students had an above-average number of friends, thinking their peers had more friends than they did undermined their well-being.
So why do we think this way?
Our research suggests that the public nature of social activities can lead people to think that their peers are doing better socially than they are.
Since social activities like eating or studying with friends often happen in public where they are easily seen, students likely overestimate how often these activities occur in their peers’ lives.
Social media also plays a role. In research that we published earlier this year, first-year students were more likely to feel like they didn’t belong at university after viewing highly social photos of their peers on Facebook.
We have not yet collected data to see how common these feelings and beliefs are outside of college. However, given how common feelings of loneliness are when people move to a new city or start a new job, it is possible that these social misperceptions could occur anytime people move to a new social environment.