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"An old body of literature in social psychology tells us that people never stop comparing themselves," says a 2014 review article in Neuropsychologica.
The first to formulate a "theory of social comparison processes" was the psychologist Leon Festinger about 70 years ago, to whom the world also owes the idea of cognitive dissonance.
In a nutshell, the logic of all the many theories and studies on the same subject goes like this: when we can look down, we feel better.
When we have to look up, it's often uncomfortable.
This isn't always true in all circumstances - confident people, for example, cope far better when someone can do something better than they do.
They see it more as an incentive.
But less self-confident people look up with envy – and down with satisfaction.
Social comparison is not just a theoretical construct.
A large number of neuroscientific studies have shown that social comparisons have measurable correlates in the human brain.
Upward social comparison, in its popular form often referred to as envy, is equated with »social pain«.
And it also activates similar regions in the cortex as physical pain.
One of the cheapest ways to feel good
If, on the other hand, an envied person experiences misfortune, the envious observer often feels well-being – and activates the corresponding parts of the brain.
In English-language publications, the German word
is actually used as a kind of technical term in this context: "This type of comparison increases positive emotions such as relief or Schadenfreude and reduces anxiety," says a neuropsychological overview article from 2017.
But looking down often triggers positive emotions as well.
Brain regions such as the ventral striatum, which also react to rewards such as money or tasty food, are reliably activated in studies when a test person wins more money or loses less than a real or fictitious comparison person.
Similar results can be obtained by observing the minds of sports fans looking at the victories or defeats of their own team or a team perceived as a rival.
Generally speaking, one of the cheapest ways to make someone feel good is to put them above someone else.
Or in everyday language: It can be worth appealing to the lowest instincts.
That's how populism works
Of course, this is precisely a favorite method of populist politics: pointing the finger down at someone who is definitely not in your constituency in an attempt to instill positive feelings in that constituency.
Be it gloating or arrogance.
Good politics never develops with the help of this method, because it replaces the will to shape politics with resentment.
In truth, those who use them make it clear that they don't want to change anything except votes.
By enabling your target audience to look down, you distract from the fact that you actually have nothing to offer them.
In Germany, this method can currently be observed constantly in everyday political life - a very regrettable development for the quality of political discourse.
And by that I don't mean the party whose only programmatic core is resentment, the AfD.
But the Union parties.
Citizens' income, immigration, climate: the same everywhere
Take a look back at the political debates of the past few weeks.
What is being talked about, or more precisely: about whom?
With the so-called
, the Union insisted on once again using the cliché of the allegedly lazy unemployed.
Of course, this is always formulated differently, it's always about »incentives to return to the labor market«.
The constantly repeated but far-fetched assertion that the originally planned basic income will make the unemployed better off than those on low wages is as typical as it is perfidious: an instrumentalization of the downward social comparison.
Friedrich Merz and his party tried to incite those who have little against those who have even less.
Merz claimed the issue was whether "those who work in our country should earn more than those who don't work and receive transfer payments."
In order to maintain this (false) claim, facts have been twisted or omitted.
For this purpose, the Union even adopted distorted figures from the AfD and the legal postille »Junge Freiheit«.
But it wasn't about facts either, it was about resentment as a substitute for arguments.
How much longer are we attractive?
The same picture emerges
when it comes to
It is absolutely indisputable that Germany urgently needs immigration, we have too few skilled workers and society is aging.
Friedrich Merz once again found a way to turn this topic into a finger exercise for downward social comparison and warned of an allegedly imminent threat of "immigration into the social systems" - a right-wing classic that has long been disproved: All these foreigners just want to come here to wake us up to lie in the bag.
We are the experiment
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In fact, things are very different: it is an open question whether Germany will remain competitive for much longer in terms of the skilled immigrants we so desperately need.
But Merz is not concerned with facts here either, but with resentment.
For a downward social comparison, here with fictitious needy foreigners who absolutely want to go to Germany in order to then receive social benefits.
In fact, this is so counterproductive that 20 members of the Union also abstained from voting on the new naturalization law – they probably know that we urgently need immigration and naturalization.
Nothing useful to contribute, but lots of aggression
When it comes to the most important topic of the present and future, the
, the Merz- und Söder-Union is currently relying almost exclusively on resentment: there are these climate activists who are giving up their jobs and risking their freedom by sticking to the road .
Now – absolutely grotesque in view of the fact that these people are protesting peacefully – an allegedly threatening “Climate RAF” is blustering, even calling for preventive detention, demanding a special criminal law for climate demonstrators.
This is as typical as it is transparent: the Union has nothing meaningful to contribute to the actual problem - Germany cannot meet its climate targets, and that is largely the legacy of 16 years with Union-led federal governments.
So people prefer to stylize the most motivated admonishers, who are absolutely right in terms of content, as a great danger.
In the latter case, the Union can - apparently - assume that the majority of the population has at least a similar basic attitude: According to the current ARD Germany trend, only 14 percent of those surveyed consider it justified to temporarily block traffic in order to »take a stand with the To bring environmental and climate protection to bear".
So populistly hitting climate protesters looks like a safe bet.
But only at first glance.
In the end it will be dark
The more relevant fact from the same survey is this: Regardless of the age group, more than three quarters of Germans think that the "need for action on climate protection" is great or very great.
It is even 85 percent for those over 65 and 82 percent for people between 50 and 64 years of age.
In other words: The core target group of the Union seems to be significantly further on this topic than the parties of Friedrich Merz and Markus Söder.
For years, one has been able to see in the USA where a policy that replaces fact-based determination with relieving resentment, with downward social comparisons as the source of voter well-being, is leading.
In the end, an ex-president sits at dinner with Holocaust deniers, who think that "Hitler had his good sides too."
Nothing more needs to be said here about the connection between anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and social devaluation as a means of politics.
In civilized societies, resentment has lost nothing as a substitute for arguments.