When is a Question not a Question?

I run for exercise. I don’t go fast and I don’t go far. I just like the way I feel after 30-40 minutes of exertion, and running is a convenient exercise if you travel a lot. I’ve reached an age where my doctor sees running as a risk rather than a benefit. When I complain about aches, pains or swelling, my doctor says, “get a bicycle.”

I notice that when I’m plodding along my running path and another runner passes me, I imperceptibly pick up my pace. I’m not aware of some intention to keep up or compete; it just seems to happen. As I watch the person open up distance ahead of me, my first thought is usually, “that person is much younger than me.” Or, if the person looks to be about my age I might think, “that person trained when they were younger and has probably run competitively.” These unflattering thoughts and behaviors last for at most 20 seconds and then my body returns to a comfortable stride and my brain returns to whatever I was thinking about before someone passed me.

I’m exercising to maintain health and reduce stress, but under certain conditions, my brain and my body seem wired for a different task.

The Social Psychologist Leon Festinger coined the term “Social Comparison Theory” in 1954 to describe research into what he concluded was our inner drive to evaluate ourselves. According to Festinger, when we don’t have an objective non-social standard against which to evaluate ourselves (e.g. Did I complete today’s run faster than yesterday’s?) we make our evaluations by comparing ourselves to others.

One related and more recent research study investigated the relative happiness of Olympic medalists based on which medal they won during the 1992 Barcelona games. You might expect that gold medalists would be happier than silver medalists and that silver medalists would be happier than bronze medalists.

The researchers gathered video clips of athlete reactions at the moment they learned of their results and when they received their medals on the podium. Research participants reviewed the video clips and assigned a rating to the emotional reactions of the athletes on a 10-point scale. The study concluded that bronze medalists were noticeably happier than silver medalists when hearing the results of the competition and when receiving their medals.

The researchers viewed their study as an extension of the concept of counterfactual thinking. In counterfactual thinking, people entertain thoughts of “what might have been.” In the study of Olympic medalists, the silver medal winners compared their result to the gold medalists. The bronze medalists on the other hand compared their result to the remaining athletes who did not medal. In other words, it’s not necessarily the objective value of what we have that matters. What matters is how we feel about what we have when we evaluate what those whom we compare ourselves against have.

So, what’s all this stuff about social comparison theory have to do with the recent Congressional committee hearings to investigate the actions of Deputy Assistant FBI Director, Peter Strzok?

One of the four strategies of the Unstuck Minds Compass is Collaborative Inquiry. Collaborative inquiry makes it easier for people to take concerted action. Theoretically, an investigative hearing is called in order to explore an important issue, to learn about critical incidents so that appropriate actions can be taken.

If we want to understand the thinking and behaviors of individuals in order to align on meaningful change, we have to keep our drive for social comparison in check when we choose our questions.

Social comparisons contaminate our interactions when the need to be right, the need to win and the need to look good become more important than the need to learn.

I’m not so naïve as to be shocked that Congressional investigations are not actually conducted for the purpose of investigating. Nor is one party more or less likely to use televised hearings to ask rhetorical questions masquerading as curiosity. The word, “inquiry” and the word, “Inquisition” may share the same etymology, but they couldn’t be farther apart in practice.

In case you missed it, have a look at the clip below and marvel at the litany of masterful questions designed to learn nothing.


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