Dear Maddi: Social comparison and studying enough

How do I know whether I am studying enough without comparing myself to others?

Maddalena Genovese - 12 October 2021

Student psychologist Maddalena Genovese answers a student question about anxiety about the right amount to study.

Student psychologist Maddalena Genovese answers a student question about anxiety about the right amount to study.

Dear Maddi,

It is only the beginning of the Fall semester and I already feel anxious about studying. While I know the amount of studying I’m doing is fine, I cannot shake away the thought that what I am doing is insufficient in comparison to my peers. Do you have any advice on staying away from anxiety when the very root of your anxiety is something you frequently interact with?

Signed, R

Dear R,

Comparing yourself to your peers is a natural human instinct. Social psychologist Leon Festinger first coined the term “social comparison” to describe this exact phenomenon. He posited that people are driven to understand themselves by evaluating their own attitudes, abilities and beliefs in comparison to others. In the best of cases, comparing yourself to others can motivate you, but at other times, when the comparison is steeped in anxiety, it can easily take you down a rabbit hole of worry and disappointment. 

As much as 10 per cent of our thoughts involve comparisons of some kind. When we look up to people who we believe are doing better than us, we are engaging in what social psychologists call upward social comparison. Comparing your study habits to a classmate who seems to be doing more would be an example of upward social comparison. Downward social comparison on the other hand, happens when we compare ourselves to those who are not doing as well or “as much” as we are. 

Those with higher self-esteem and fewer stressors in their lives tend to fare somewhat better with social comparisons. They might experience a boost in confidence when they engage in a downward comparison, or experience a greater sense of motivation to improve their skills when they look up to someone who is doing better than them. But when we are feeling anxious, and the pressure is high, like at the start of a new semester, we tend to engage in more upward comparisons, which instead of being inspiring, leave us feeling like we are coming up short. 

When you are already in an anxious mindset, these comparisons can lead to critical thoughts about yourself and others, when in some cases, there might not be a reason to worry. If you are meeting your academic objectives and you are happy with your grades, the amount of studying you are doing might just be enough. You might simply be caught in a cycle of upward comparison, along with unproductive worry that says “you should be doing more” when in reality, what you are doing is actually working for you. 

Unproductive worry involves focusing our thoughts on things that we cannot control, or imagining problems that may never actually occur. So if you are happy with your grades, and yet also constantly worrying that you might not be studying enough, this would be an example of unproductive worry. 

But what if you are really concerned that you are not studying enough compared to others, and you are unhappy with the grades you are getting? Now it’s time to try productive worry, which turns a worry into a problem to be solved.

You might be interested to try this strategy by Clarissa at SheRocks@College the next time you study your course material. According to Clarissa, you should use two questions to assess whether you have studied enough:

  1. What information do I know for sure?
  2. What information am I still shaky on? 

If upon reviewing the course content you find that you know 70 to 90 per cent of the information, there is a pretty good chance that you have studied enough. However, if you find that you only know 25 to 50 per cent of the material, you have a bit more studying to do. 

You can use the list you created in the second question to focus your time on re-learning the topics you listed as being “shaky on” using any method that makes the most sense to you (e.g., reviewing lecture slides, practice tests, flash cards). At the end of each study session you want to ask yourself the two questions again: 

  1. What information do I know for sure?
  2. What information am I still shaky on? 

If at that point you feel like you have mastered 70 to 90 per cent of the material, you can stop studying. You repeat the process until you get yourself to that 70 to 90 per cent. Having mastered more of the material, and reminding yourself of the efforts you have dedicated to studying, will in turn help you better manage your anxiety. 

R, you sound like a very motivated and committed student. I hope that going forward, you can start to let go of the worry of where others are at, and instead, focus on your own journey. I think that you will find that when you focus on your own learning and figure out a study schedule that works best for you, everything else will fall into place. Best wishes with the remainder of your semester!

Additional Resources: 

Written by Maddalena (Maddi) Genovese, Counselling and Clinical Services Satellite Psychologist for the Faculty of Science.

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