As a hard-nosed empiricist, I am a stickler for precise, accurate measurement. Good measurement scales have high reliability (consistency) and high validity (i.e., they measure what they are intended to measure). However, I’m thankful that we don’t have measurement tools for EVERYTHING (yet). When situations arise in which there are an absence of standardized scales to measure performance, I choose the most self-serving evaluation techniques possible so that I can feel good about myself. Why not? Without evidence to the contrary, I’d rather paint myself in a flattering light.
For example, I like to think that I’m a good mom. I have two grown children who are well-educated, gainfully employed, and generally all-around good citizens. Superficial evidence of my “final products” would indicate that my parenting is/was a success. The truth is that there is no objective measure of being a “good mother.” This is good news for me! Without this objective data, I’m free to decide for myself how I rate in the mommy arena. So, I’ve decided to give myself a solid A!
My self-administered grade is based on the subjective process of comparing myself to other moms. Of course, I choose which moms I compare myself to very carefully. I know many excellent mothers. My own mom is a wonderful mother and so are my sisters as well as most of my friends and neighbors. One of my former neighbors, Nina, is quite possibly the most amazing mom in all of history and in the universe. When I lived in Naperville, Nina and her family lived in the house across our backyard. Nina has 17 children….all adopted and all home-schooled (in both English and Spanish). Nina made 5 loaves of homemade bread each morning. She sewed her children’s clothes, maintained a fabulous garden from which she fed her family, and actively contributed to the community through volunteer work. Her amazing family was even featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
I love Nina and she is one of my dearest friends. When I was feeling confident in my parenting skills, I would look to Nina for inspiration and ideas on how to be an even better mom to my own children. I did the same with my mom, my sisters, and other friends who I look up to as good examples for parenting. This strategy allowed me to include myself in the unofficial “good mom” group.
However, I have to admit that there were days when I did not feel like a “good mom.” I remember one day in particular when I was in graduate school. I was stressed out because I had a big paper due the next day. The house was a mess, my husband was out of town on a business trip, my children were hungry and wanted dinner (for goodness sake, I had just fed them the day before!). For the sake of expediency, I ended up heating up a can of Spaghetti-Os and letting the children eat “dinner” in front of the TV so I could work on my paper. Admittedly, this was not my finest “mommy moment.” That night the last thing I wanted to do was look out my back window and compare myself to Nina, the wonder-mom. She was probably baking a soufflé over a camp fire (something she actually did once when she took all of her kids camping….I’m not kidding!).
So, instead of using Nina as my parenting benchmark that evening, I chose to think about mothers who were much worse than me (e.g., cases from the news headlines of parents being arrested for abuse or neglect). On Spaghetti-O night, I was able to convince myself that I was still a pretty good mom because I’ve never been incarcerated for my parenting practices.
Of course I did not invent the technique of selective comparison. We all do it. Psychological scientists call this process of evaluation by comparing ourselves to others “social comparison” (Festinger, 1954). Clearly, this is not an objective process. We pick and choose who we use as a comparison depending upon the situation. Usually, we make our selection in such a way as to protect our positive self-image (self-esteem). As humans, we tend to be motivated to maintain favorable perceptions of ourselves. We can do this by either associating ourselves with people who are more successful than we are (upward comparison) or by comparing ourselves to those who are less successful (downward comparison) depending upon the situation.
Our brains are amazingly good at making this happen through a psychological phenomenon known as confirmation bias. Essentially, our brains are wired to look for evidence that confirms our pre-conceived beliefs (“I’m a good mom.”) and to ignore disconfirming evidence (“sometimes I ignore my children, feed them processed food, and let mass media take over my role as parent”).
Of course, if I wanted a more realistic assessment of my parenting, I could always just ask my kids….but why risk finding out something that might lower my self-esteem? I prefer my own creative measurement style ☺
Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7, 117-140.