Picture this: You’re a killer guitar player. All your friends know you as the one that plays guitar, and you’ve got T-shirts, magazine subscriptions, and posters in your room devoted to your musical passion. You head out to an open mic night and watch another guitar player execute an incredibly impressive performance — clearly, this person is a better player than you. How would you feel about that? Okay, let’s add a twist to the story: That person is your best friend. Now how would you feel? That little green jealousy monster welling up inside of you is thanks to a principle called the self-evaluation maintenance theory. Luckily, there are a few ways around it.
The self-evaluation maintenance (SEM) theory was conceived around the 1980s by a psychologist named Abraham Tesser. It’s based on two elements: First, people behave in a way that will help them maintain a positive image of themselves, and second, a person’s relationships have a substantial impact on that self-image. As Shankar Vedantam writes in his book “The Hidden Brain,” Tesser’s interest in this phenomenon started when a young woman approached him to complain about her grade in a class. Not that she had done poorly — she had done well, in fact, but a close friend had done even better. On its face, this feeling is both incredibly relatable and incredibly strange. After all, this woman didn’t care about the superior classmates she didn’t know. It was the fact that this classmate was her friend that really gnawed at her.
“When a stranger does well at something, we can enjoy their accomplishments,” Vendantam writes. “In fact, when we know something about basketball or poetry, we are better able to understand the skill involved in dunking a ball or turning a rhyme.” Likewise, when a close friend does well at something that isn’t really your jam, you’re happy to celebrate them. That’s partly because you’re a good-hearted person who likes watching your friends succeed, and partly because you’re self-interested and some of their glory rubs off on you just because you’re their friend.
But when a close friend does well at something you do have an interest in — or worse, something that makes up your identity — all hell breaks loose. “You have these two reactions to the other person,” Tesser told Vendantam. “‘Your success pulls me up,’ but on the other hand, ‘Your success makes me feel like crapola.'”
To get to the bottom of this phenomenon, Tesser brought friends into the lab and made them jealous of one another. In one experiment, the research team sectioned off participants into four-person groups made up of two pairs of friends (let’s call them Alan and Alex, and Ben and Bill) and had them play a version of the game “Password.” For each round of the game, one person (Alan, for example) had to guess a target word from a set of clues given to them one by one by the three other people (friend Alex, strangers Ben and Bill). The clues were selected from a list and graded in difficulty, so the players could choose how much or little they wanted to help the player in the hot seat. Once their turn was up, the next player went, and so on until all four participants had played.
Here’s the catch: Half of the participants were told that the game measured important verbal and leadership skills; half of them were told it was just a game. The game was also rigged so that the first two people to be in the hot seat, one from each friendship pair (Alan and Ben), would do miserably. Self-maintenance theory says that if Alan thought his performance on the game was a sign of his verbal and leadership skills and he didn’t do very well, he’d feel awful if his buddy Alex breezed through the game. To see if that was the case, the research team counted the number of rounds when a friend was helped more than a stranger. When players thought it was just a game, the friend was helped more than the stranger in 10 out of 13 sessions. When players thought their image was at stake, the stranger was helped more than the friend in 10 out of 13 sessions. With friends like these, who needs enemies?
If this feels uncomfortably familiar, we’ve got good news: There’s a way to combat this tendency, and knowledge is the first step. In his 1988 paper about the phenomenon, Tesser laid out four ways to cope (not all of them good):
- Drift away from your friend. In Tesser’s example, if Alice and Barbara try out for the high school symphonic band and only Barbara gets in, Alice can cope by spending less time around Barbara or focusing on the ways they’re different.
- Change your own self-definition. Alice can focus more on the other activities that bring her joy and put less importance on music.
- Undercut your friend. If she really can’t stand it, Tesser supposes that Alice can break Barbara’s reed or hide her music for her next tryout. In a less extreme sense, she can brood on all the ways Barbara got where she was unfairly — luck, connections, etc.
- Do better next time. It might sound obvious, but Alice can also cope by practicing even harder to make sure she gets into symphonic band the next time she tries out.
If none of those sound pleasant, consider Vedantam’s story about a conflict-prone scientist couple who ran a lab together. “Although they appear to be doing identical things and have identical interests, John and Virginia have figured out how to do slightly different things — to divide up their everyday tasks so that they work in complementary ways rather than competitive ways.” He writes, “… They have agreed that she is the expert when it comes to biochemistry and cell biology — the basic tools of bench science. They have also agreed that he is the expert on clinical issues — and a lot of scientific work involves working with patients.”
In the case of Alice and Barbara, the two could recognize that there are many ways to be a good musician, and not all of them come across in a high-stakes audition setting. Maybe Barbara has amazing technique, while Alice has a beautiful tone. And through it all, they can remember that they’re friends first — and friends support each other, whether they’re killin’ it or they’re lagging a little behind.
Check out my related post: Can you get rid of the bias in your head?