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.
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