Is comparing good for you?

Comparing performance, looks, results, comments, etc. is something we have all done or experienced at some point in life. It may have been in school, where when school report or results came out, you grouped together with friends to compare notes. It may have been your family comparing you to siblings or nieces and nephews. It may have been in sports where you were compared against another competitor to make the team or not. I personally don’t think anyone is completely immune to it.

As an adult and in business, I often make comparisons some based on factual information such as social media metrics, business metrics, others much more subjective around perception, looks, feelings. But is it helpful and good for you?

Movements around mindfulness and self-esteem often ask you to stop comparing yourself to others. They claim that ultimately it isn’t helping you forward and that only focusing on yourself matters. Others and I would often see myself in this category, find benchmarking useful to become better and when it is data-driven, to have an objective or more objective view of positioning.

A research study from Oxford University found that people automatically compare themselves with others. They also found that when we are cooperating with a person you perceive better than you improve your performance and the reverse happens when you compete against them.

The researchers used games and fMRI scanners to come up with these findings. The test audience was small and the proof would also need to be verified further. But it shows us some interesting food for exploration for gamification design.

In gamification design, we often create either a competitive or collaborative type of game-play. Feedback gives ideas of skills and will feed perception. If we pair people with the best performers, they will step it up, if we make them compete they will find it harder and likely perform worse. It can go as far a skilled competitor making other people judge their performance as worse, whereas a floundering competitor will make the opposition feel better. It is definitely an interesting observation to make, and what was also interesting in the study is that the feedback didn’t have to be correct for the impact in perception and performance to play out.

It makes the case for ‘fake it until you make it’ scream out loud in a competitive setting. Whereas in the collaborative field you want to join the strongest team with the best chances to win.

In my competitive basketball days, I have to say we always raised our game playing against those above us in the league table and in the same series we could have a woeful game against the bottom ranked teams.

From a motivational design perspective, it is good to be mindful of these studies and then to watch for how they play out in your projects with clients. Knowing that you may create unintentional perceptions, is a powerful starting point. Ideally, you would want everyone to play against the best possible competitor so they can play their best game and you would want everyone to join the best team to again show their best side. In the very aim of doing that, we may just make performance questionable or create the unbeatable feedback loop.

In my mind, the question around feasibility remains. Is it possible to create the best possible outcome for everyone in your gamification design for both competition and collaboration? If it is, what would it look like?


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