Why having smart friends isn't always good for you (and how to make sure that it is). cover image

Why having smart friends isn't always good for you (and how to make sure that it is).

Dorian Minors • March 3, 2014

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

Our happiness isn't always in our hands. Sometimes it depends on the success (or lack thereof) of those around us. It might seem fairly obvious if I were to say that we compare ourselves to other people. I think we all know that on some level. But have you ever wondered why? And to what effect? Well, many a psychologist has - how might comparing ourselves to others affect how we live our lives?

The archetypal work of Buunk and Ybema is a good enough starting point to answer this question. They did a bunch of research on social comparisons in 1997 and found that we use these comparisons as a benchmark to judge how satisfied we should be. If those around us are more successful than us, we tend to feel stressed and ambitious. Less successful? We tend to feel comfortable and lack motivation. Why? Well, what better way for our lazy, lazy brains to decide how hard we need to work.

“Too many successful people in our lives can cause undue stress about our performance. Too few successful people and we get complacent.”

It's a very simple thing, but influential. Let's say you're a Uni student and you're mates are on the honour roll. You get a good grades, but you find that you feel pretty lacklustre. Maybe you make some new friends, who are more into the party side and don't mind scraping through with passing grades. Suddenly, the fact that you're in the top 25% feels good again - something you forgot with your brainier buddies.

Another example. You're a salesperson, selling 10 units a month. You sit right next to Sarah who sells 20 units a month. That's double! You're not going to feel very satisfied with your persuasive prowess (although we can help with that). But then you move desks, sitting in between Peter and Ruth who both only sell 4 or 5 units a month. Suddenly you feel quite successful.

You get the point I hope.

It's just as apparent in romantic relationships. Happy couples tend to see themselves as superior to the relationships around them and pride; joy and happiness ensues. Unhappy couples have a greater tendency to feel their relationships are worse than average and will feel anger, envy and frustration (you might also be interested to know that 'magic number' that'll help you repair that relationship).

So, be aware of who you surround yourself with. People who place value on different things to you might perform less in areas you care about, encouraging you to underachieve. But, surround yourself with too many overachievers and you might just find yourself overwhelmed with anxiety. As with so many things, balance is the key. Learn why friends are oh, so important here. Or learn how to impress potential new ones here. Turning scholarship into wisdom without the usual noise and clutter, we dig up the dirt on psychological theories you can use. Become an armchair psychologist at The Dirt Psychology.

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.