Downward Social Comparison Definition
Social comparison involves thinking about one or more other people in relation to the self. Downward social comparison involves making comparisons with others who are inferior to, or less fortunate than, oneself in some way.
Downward Social Comparison History and Background
Leon Festinger’s theory of social comparison proposed that because people seek accurate self-evaluations, they compare themselves with other people who are similar to themselves. people also make upward social comparisons with others who are superior, in hopes of learning how to improve. Early researchers discovered, however, that people are not always unbiased self-evaluators. Sometimes people wish to self-enhance— to feel better about themselves—which may lead them to compare downward. In a highly influential article in 1981, Thomas Wills proposed that when individuals are low in subjective well-being, they often make downward social comparisons in an attempt to feel better. They may make downward social comparisons in several ways, including active derogation or simply passively taking advantage of opportunities to compare with people who are worse off. Wills also proposed that downward comparisons are made especially frequently by people who are depressed or low in self-esteem, because of their greater need for self-enhancement. To support his thesis, Wills reviewed an abundance of evidence on topics ranging from aggression and social prejudice to humor.
Wills’s article inspired considerable research on downward social comparisons. Indeed, his article may be credited with rekindling social psychology’s interest in social comparison more generally.
Research on the Selection and Effects of Downward Social Comparisons
Much of that research has been consistent with Wills’s original propositions. Laboratory experiments have shown that people who are threatened in some way make downward social comparisons—or at least, fewer upward social comparisons. For example, in one study, participants who had failed a test of social sensitivity were more likely than those who had succeeded to choose to look at the scores of others when they expected those scores to be worse than their own.
Field studies have found similar evidence. For instance, in an interview study of breast cancer patients, the vast majority spontaneously brought up ways in which they were superior to, or more advantaged than, other people with cancer. They were much less likely to describe upward social comparisons. Other populations that have been shown to engage in downward social comparison include mentally disabled adolescents, victims of fire, arthritis patients, and mothers of premature infants.
Considerable research also has examined the effects of downward social comparisons. They have been shown to increase positive affect, decrease negative affect, heighten optimism about the future, increase relationship satisfaction, and enhance self-esteem. These benefits seem to be especially pronounced for people who are low in self-esteem and who are strongly disposed to make social comparisons.
Challenges to Downward Social Comparison Theory
As is true of any theory that has inspired considerable research, evidence has emerged that challenges Wills’s theory or that at least identifies qualifications to it. First, it has become clear that upward social comparisons can benefit people under threat. Although traditionally it has been assumed that comparisons with superior others make people feel worse, upward social comparisons can be self-enhancing and motivating. For example, ex-smokers may seek contact with successful ex-smokers to learn about their strategies or to be inspired by their examples. People under threat also may avoid social comparisons altogether. Cancer patients sometimes schedule their oncologist appointments first thing in the morning to avoid seeing others whose conditions are worse.
Evidence that people under threat avoid social comparisons or make upward social comparisons does not contradict downward social comparison theory; it merely suggests that those people have other comparison strategies available to them. More challenging to the theory is evidence that downward social comparisons sometimes have deleterious effects. Specifically, people may worry that they will suffer the same fate as the downward target. Successful dieters, for example, may not wish to hear about others who have gained back all the weight they lost. People also may refrain from making downward social comparisons for fear of appearing boastful or as lacking in empathy.
Two important determinants of comparison effects appear to be one’s level of (1) perceived control and (2) identification with the comparison target. When people perceive little control over the comparison dimension, such as whether their illness will worsen, they may fear comparisons with others who are worse off. Similarly, when people identify with the downward target, they may worry that they will suffer a similar fate. In contrast, when they believe that they do have control over the comparison dimension or feel dissimilar to the target, they are likely to feel better after making downward social comparisons.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to downward social comparison theory comes from a study that investigated social comparisons made by university students in their everyday lives. Respondents were more likely to report downward social comparisons when they felt happy rather than unhappy. To explain this result, the researchers drew upon the large literature on mood-congruent cognition. They proposed that social comparisons may operate in a mood-congruent fashion: When people are happy, they tend to focus on favorable thoughts about themselves and ways in which they are superior to other people, which may promote downward social comparisons. In contrast, when people are sad or under threat, they may focus on unfavorable information about themselves and on ways that other people are better off, which may promote upward social comparisons.
One way to reconcile these results with downward social comparison theory may be that two forces drive social comparisons under threat: both mood-congruent priming and the motivated processes proposed by Wills. That is, people may be prone to make upward social comparisons when they are sad, because their moods prime them to have unfavorable thoughts about themselves and about their inferiority to others. These mood-congruent effects may be especially likely to drive the comparisons that people make unintentionally. At the same time, people may combat their bad feelings by deliberately seeking downward social comparisons. The social comparisons they are motivated to make, then, may be downward rather than upward. One study of comparisons in daily life offered support for these predictions.
- Suls, J., & Wheeler, L. (Eds.). (2000). Handbook of social comparison: Theory and research. New York: Plenum.
- Taylor, S. E., & Lobel, M. (1989). Social comparison activity under threat: Downward evaluation and upward contacts. Psychological Review, 96, 569-575.
- Wheeler, L., & Miyake, K. (1992). Social comparison in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62, 760-773.
- Wood, J. V., Michela, J. L., & Giordano, C. (2000). Downward comparison in everyday life: Reconciling self-enhancement models with the mood-cognition priming model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 563-579.
- Wood, J. V., & VanderZee, K. I. (1997). Social comparisons among cancer patients: Under what conditions are comparisons upward and downward? In B. P. Buunk & F. X. Gibbons (Eds.), Health, coping, and well-being: Perspectives from social comparison theory (pp. 299-328). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.