Twins: personality, identity and lives of constant comparison
Updated: Jun 11, 2020
Has anyone ever deemed you a personality type that you’d not previously identified with? Have you ever been told of how opposite you were of someone you felt most similar to you? This thought post explores the effects of social comparison on twin and sibling behavior and how the same concept can be extended into work communities.
This is a topic quite personal to me as an identical twin with whom I have always felt very similar to and someone with two other siblings, who couldn't be more different. As someone who studies the psychology of people at work, understanding behaviors and emotions means understanding the environments/contexts in which they take place. To study behavior alone would not be very helpful. With qualifications in personality assessments and recently researching identity development, I began thinking about the ‘labels’ I had been given growing up and how these labels affected my behavior. Performing to your description can feel safe and a great way to get reassurance from your friends and family. This consistency is tied to identity, if defined as the conscious and subconscious effort at maintaining consistency across contexts.
If we take a step back and untangle the ‘labels’ we would have to accept that the labels people give you are based on their own comparison groups. What I mean by this is that if your parents deemed you quiet and studious, this would be influenced by their exposure to other quiet and studious people or with whom they are directly comparing you (i.e. your siblings or friends). The secret words here are ‘it depends’. Depending on your context, environment, your comparison group changes and therefore the way in which you behave will be interpreted accordingly. This is why people at work may describe me differently than my family or close friends.
Growing up an identical twin, this understanding of personality labels and the extent to which I identified with these labels, alleviated the disconnect between who I believed myself to be and who my family believed me to be. Twins have been interesting to study in this area because they are consistently and constantly being described to help others identify them correctly. An example of this are labels like ‘the serious one and the playful one’, ‘the quiet one and the loud one,' you see the trend here.
The dramatization of twin descriptions are based on a comparison of one. This again is not in an effort to support the twins’ own identity development, but so that others may be able to call them by their correct name. In my own life, this was a common practice that in hindsight felt inaccurate. I always thought we were most similar than different, but the constant comparing meant that small degree differences in behavior meant drastic differences in how we were described by others. If we scaled this twin study, the same principles can be extended to everyone; you are labeled based on the labeler’s exposure to human behavior. When we believe these labels or think of them as socially desirable, this may then alter our self-view or give us permission to dramatize these characteristics.
Even in studies looking at social comparisons between siblings, for better or worse, it is clear that these comparisons directly effect their emotional and relational development. Speaking from my lifelong experience of social comparison, perhaps the next time you find yourself eager to comment on someone in comparison to someone else, practicing curiosity rather than judgement may be more helpful to the recipient of such interactions.
This information of social comparison is transferrable and often overlooked in work environments. The concept is important because your work community is a unique comparison group to your friends, family or other social role groups. This fuels into work reputation that may not feel completely accurate. Social comparisons have shown both negative and positive effects on a person's relational development. Knowing the side effects of social comparisons, how may this influence your leadership behaviors?
Huguet, P., Carlier, M., Dolan, C., De Geus, E., & Boomsma, D. (2017). Social Comparison Orientation in Monozygotic and Dizygotic Twins. Twin Research and Human Genetics, 20 (6), 550-557.
Jensen, A., Pond, C., & Padilla-Walker, A. (2015). Why Can’t I Be More Like My Brother? The Role and Correlates of Sibling Social Comparison Orientation. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 44 (11), 2067-2078.
Kroger, J. (2007). Identity development : Adolescence through adulthood (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks ; London: SAGE.