The Covetous Canary: Kierkegaard on the Problem of Social Comparison and the Cultivation of Social Courage
This essay contributes to the growing number of Kierkegaard scholars who emphasize Kierkegaard’s social analysis and contribution to political thought analyzing Kierkegaard’s understanding of how the crowd shapes personal identity and how social comparison is a roadblock on the path to authentic selfhood. First, I offer a brief overview of social comparison theory, an important discovery of twentieth century social psychology. Social comparison theory (SCT) is evidenced in stories, anecdotes, and numerous laboratory experiments and studies, and suggests that the agent’s self-conception is largely determined by social and cultural forces. SCT provides both a theoretical framework and empirical support for Kierkegaard’s understanding of the crowd’s influence on the agent’s self-conception and emotions. Second, I examine several Kierkegaardian texts to show his understanding of the way the crowd influences the agent’s self-conception and how the crowd is always a stumbling block on the self’s road to authenticity. Finally, the same texts provide a solution to the crowd’s threat to authenticity: developing social courage through emotion regulation strategies. Social psychology is utilized to develop and strengthen these implicit social emotion regulation strategies, especially social attentional deployment. Human beings are largely constituted by our social group, and for Kierkegaard there are only two social options: the crowd, or the Eternal. Taking the Eternal as one’s object requires focusing to the Eternal and not the crowd, and one needs social courage to accomplish this shift in focus.