Sussin’ ‘em out
I’ve written somewhere here on the blog about my tendency while working out to compare myself – my physique, my strength, etc. – to guys of my similar body frame and age. When I see a guy around my same size who bench presses substantially more than me, I feel slightly bitter or jealous, and I typically rationalize to myself why he’s stronger than me. This is partly a function of age. I did this sort of thing much more when I was 20 than I do today. Now I’m more in my own bubble, and I’m more likely to just admit to myself that the guy is more genetically gifted than me. But there’s still a slight tendency to think that maybe he’s on the juice or maybe he has more free time to work out or maybe he has a workout partner and I don’t.
I don’t feel competitive in this way with guys who are either much bigger or much smaller than me. I weigh in at 180. I’m not even in the same ballpark as the guy who weighs 240 and benches 400. He’s off my radar. I’ll perhaps notice his strength but it creates no internal response. The dirty little secret here is that guys compare themselves at the gym (and plenty of other places) to other guys, and I’d argue that those of us who do this (nearly all of us) focus more on guys we are more outwardly comparable to in terms of natural body frame.
This comes to mind through Tyler Cowen who links to a paper titled “Increased aggression during human group contests when competitive ability is more similar”. The abstract:
Theoretical analyses and empirical studies have revealed that conflict escalation is more likely when individuals are more similar in resource-holding potential (RHP). Conflicts can also occur between groups, but it is unknown whether conflicts also escalate more when groups are more similar in RHP. We tested this hypothesis in humans, using data from two professional sports competitions: football (the Bundesliga, the German first division of football) and basketball (the NBA, the North American National Basketball Association). We defined RHP based on the league ranks of the teams involved in the competition (i.e. their competitive ability) and measured conflict escalation by the number of fouls committed. We found that in both sports the number of fouls committed increased when the difference in RHP was smaller. Thus, we provide what is to our best knowledge the first evidence that, as in conflicts between individuals, conflicts escalate more when groups are more similar in RHP.
It seems logical to apply this team-level tendency to individuals. While my gym mirror jealousy (or confidence) is a civilized version of an aggressive and evolved instinct, it makes sense that we’d spend our competitive energy on foes who more closely rival us. We’re essentially looking for the chinks in their armor, or their hidden strengths. If you’re David, despite the myth that small guys can out-scrap big guys, it’s pretty much a waste of blood and sweat to go up against Goliath. If you’re a big guy you really have nothing to gain by confronting a little guy. It’s the guys near each other in size that know that the other one is a greater threat in terms of the possibilities of a confrontation. And we try to determine what they’re all about.