Social Comparison in Sport

Social  comparison  is  a  process  in  which  self-appraisals  are  formed  and  involves  evaluating one’s  skills,  attributes,  belongings,  and  so  forth compared with those of others.

Social Comparison Theory

Social   comparison   theory,   proposed   by   Leon Festinger  in  1954,  states  that  individuals  have an  innate  drive  to  maintain  stable  and  accurate appraisals  of  themselves  and  do  so  by  searching out comparative standards. There are three fundamental influences related to the drive to engage in social  comparisons.  First,  social  comparisons  are used to understand one’s own standing in relation to  others  in  terms  of  attributes,  skills,  and  social expectations. Self-evaluations tend to be more stable  and  accurate  when  comparisons  are  made  in reference  to  someone  who  is  similar,  rather  than when  there  are  large  discrepancies  between  oneself  and  other.  In  this  regard,  social  comparisons help to develop accurate self-evaluations. Second, social comparisons help one to maintain a positive self-image  by  comparing  with  someone  perceived to  be  in  lower  standing  in  a  certain  domain.  In this way, social comparisons help to self-enhance. Third,  individuals  compare  themselves  to  people who are better (e.g., thinner, faster, stronger, more successful)  in  order  to  advance  or  self-improve. Therefore, the third motivation of social comparison is related to self-improvement.

Based  on  the  theory  propositions,  individuals harbor a unidirectional drive upward in which they strive  to  achieve  or  self-improve.  The  preferred source of comparison is a person similar in ability; opinion; or attribute in question; or who presents with  realistic  characteristics,  skills,  or  attributes that the individual can achieve. Maximal information can be extracted for evaluation with an individual  who  is  similar,  resulting  in  a  more  precise comparison.  For  example,  an  aspiring  collegiate athlete may compare himself or herself to another rival athlete who is similar in age, physical fitness, and  personal  performance.  This  gives  him  or  her a basis for evaluation on the probability of being selected for the available position.

Upward Social Comparisons

In  cases  where  individuals  are  seeking  to  self-improve, the comparisons are often made with others who are better off, or superior, and this is termed an upward social comparison. Individuals who are competitive,  high  achievers,  or  highly  motivated to achieve a goal are prone to make more upward social comparisons and do so based on achievable standards. Individuals may also use social comparisons with superior others to be inspired and learn skills from the other to achieve a goal.

However,  upward  social  comparisons  may  be discouraging,  since  they  increase  awareness  of one’s  own  inferiority.  Theorists  claim  that  making upward comparisons with those who are similar  may  be  difficult  to  accept  when  the  superior other is highly similar in other dimensions. These upward social comparisons are particularly hurtful to one’s self-esteem and foster negative affect and discontent.  Also,  some  upward  comparisons  can be too difficult to accept (i.e., unachievable), and the  individual  making  the  comparison  may  use cognitive coping strategies, such as self-protection or ego defense. For example, individuals who compare  unfavorably  may  selectively  focus  on  other real or imagined domains that the target falls short on to maintain self-esteem.

Downward Social Comparisons

Downward  comparisons  occur  with  individuals who  are  perceived  to  be  inferior  or  less  advantaged. The primary motive behind these comparisons  is  self-enhancement.  While  not  as  common as upward comparisons, individuals tend to make more   downward   comparisons   on   dimensions that  are  desirable.  For  example,  individuals  tend to believe that if they are engaging in a desirable behavior, few others are doing the same. Yet when they engage in an undesirable behavior, they believe many others would do the same. Downward comparisons are used to maintain self-esteem and for ego  protection.  Strategies  used  for  downward social  comparison  include  purposefully  selecting inferior targets, focusing on domains were the self is superior, or avoiding comparisons entirely.

Social Comparison and the Physical Self

Individuals can make social comparisons in many self-domains,  yet  social  comparisons  regarding the physical self are particularly pertinent in sport and exercise psychology (SEP). For example, it is argued that social comparison is a process throughout  which  self-appraisals  of  physical  appearance and  attractiveness  are  formed.  Appearance  and athletic  or  fitness  ability-focused  social  comparisons are prominent pertaining to the physical self. Most research on this topic has focused on upward comparisons  around  the  body  and  suggests  that these comparisons are interpersonal processes that shape  body  image.  Many  researchers  use  social comparison theory to describe body dissatisfaction and  body  image  concerns  more  generally,  since the social (and media driven) ideals of attractiveness  and  fitness  (e.g.,  thin  and  toned  for  women and  muscular  and  tall  for  men)  are  unachievable for most yet are the target of most upward social comparison. While social comparisons perpetuate body image concerns, there is also some suggestion that the propensity to make such comparisons (i.e., general tendency to compare oneself to others) is a  key  factor  in  body  dissatisfaction  and  negative affective and behavioral outcomes such as depression, anxiety, disordered eating, physical inactivity and/or exercise dependence.

The  limited  research  on  downward  appearance–focused  social  comparisons  suggests  that individuals  with  motives  to  maintain  or  improve self-esteem and self-worth make more downward comparisons.  Downward  social  comparison  may also be related to feelings of body-related hubristic pride.  Generally,  there  is  limited  focus  on  downward  social  comparison  and  the  association  with body image or physical self-perceptions.

Individual Differences in Social Comparisons

Individual  differences  in  social  comparison  experiences,  such  as  sex,  culture,  and  ethnicity,  have only   been   minimally   assessed.   For   example, some  researchers  contend  that  since  females  are more  likely  to  define  themselves  by  their  interpersonal  relationships  compared  to  males,  they may  be  more  likely  to  experience  social  comparisons.  However,  most  researchers  suggest  that males  and  females  are  prone  to  making  similar comparisons.  Also,  cultural  differences  on  social comparisons  are  often  explained  based  on  differences  in  the  way  the  self  is  identified  and  internalized with respect to others. In general, cultures that  are  highly  interdependent  (e.g.,  East  Asian) are  more  likely  to  engage  in  social  comparisons than  independent  cultures  (e.g.,  North  American, European).  Furthermore,  individuals  from  independent cultures tend to make social comparisons with  self-enhancement  motives  compared  with individuals  from  interdependent  cultures  who are  likely  to  display  self-improvement  motives. However,  researchers  focused  on  social  comparisons  targeting  the  physical  self  (e.g.,  appearance, body  shape  and  size)  suggest  opposite  findings. Independent,  Westernized  cultures  tend  to  place higher importance on the physique, and therefore, individuals  are  more  likely  to  make  comparisons related to the body form and function and appearance  compared  to  Eastern,  more  interdependent cultures.  Additional  individual  differences  that may predispose individuals to make upward social comparisons include low self-esteem, unstable self-concept,  depression,  neuroticism,  and  those  high in reactivity to stress.


  1. Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7, 117–140.
  2. Myers, T. A., & Crowther, J. H. (2009). Social comparison as a predictor of body dissatisfaction: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 118, 683–698.
  3. Suls, J. M., & Miller, R. L. (Eds.). (1977). Social comparison processes: Theoretical and empirical perspectives. Washington, DC: Hemisphere.
  4. Suls, J. M., & Wills, T. A. (Eds.). (1991). Social comparison: Contemporary theory and research. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  5. Wood, J. V. (1989). Theory and research concerning social comparisons of personal attributes. Psychological Bulletin, 106, 231–248.

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