Are Social Comparisons Making You Hoard Knowledge?

In long-run, the degree to which humanity solves its most pressing problems will largely depend on our ability to share knowledge. The most apparent pieces of this endeavor are our formal K-12 public education systems, but knowledge sharing can also involve friends arguing over a beer or a professor mentoring a Ph.D student. One key question is whether these types of knowledge sharing are accurate, efficient, and maximize the learning that could take place.

A new study led by Devin Ray suggests that the answer is not exactly a rip-roaring yes. Ray and his team began two similar experiments by giving each participant a phony intelligence test and telling them they performed well or poorly. Because people often cope with negative feedback by seeking out downward social comparisons (i.e. identifying somebody they’re better than), this created one group that was primed with a social comparison mindset and one group that was not.

In next phase of the experiment participants read and answered questions on a lesson about the immune system. Participants were then told they would be explaining the lesson to another participant, and they were asked to write explanations about various sections of the lesson. However, before writing the explanations, participants were shown a visual representation that either detailed their own knowledge of the lesson, or the other person’s knowledge of the lesson.

The researchers found that when negative intelligence results primed people to be conscious of social comparisons, they shared less knowledge when they were given information about the other person’s knowledge.

Two experiments provided convergent evidence about the mixed costs and benefits of knowledge awareness. In both experiments, knowledge awareness was necessary for explainers to effectively match their explanations to explanation recipients’ needs. However, at the same time that knowledge awareness enabled people to effectively target their explanations, knowledgeable explainers motivated to engage in social comparison shared less information as a result of knowledge awareness. In short, these results demonstrate that knowledge awareness allows explainers to determine what needs to be explained but, when social comparison motives become involved, knowledge awareness can simultaneously rob resulting explanations of content.

Social comparisons can have a variety of negative effects on individual people, but these findings highlight how they can also have a social cost. It’s also worth noting that given the desire to not share knowledge with potential rivals, our system of graduate research in which professors get a fair amont of credit for work done by their students seems somewhat well-designed. Because professors have a strong incentive to see their students do well, the tendency to withhold knowledge will likely be somewhat mitigated.
Ray, D.G., Neugebauer, J., Sassenberg, K., Buder, J., & Hesse, F.W. (2012). Motivated Shortcomings in Explanation: The Role of Comparative Self-Evaluation and Awareness of Explanation Recipient’s Knowledge Journal of Experimental Psychology: General DOI: 10.1037/a0029339

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