Social Comparison Definition
Social comparison involves thinking about information about one or more other people in relation to the self. People may compare themselves with other people for a variety of reasons: to evaluate themselves (e.g., How good at math am I?), to learn from others (e.g., How much did that person study to ace that exam?), and to feel better about their own situation (e.g., I may not be great at algebra, but I’m better than 70% of my classmates), to name a few.
Social Comparison History and Background
Early research in social psychology on level of aspiration and on reference groups contributed to Leon Festinger’s social comparison theory, which he proposed in 1954. Festinger argued that humans have a drive to evaluate their opinions and abilities. When objective standards for self-evaluation are unavailable, he said, they compare themselves with other people. According to Festinger’s similarity hypothesis, people prefer to compare themselves with others who are similar to themselves. He also noted that people have a drive to improve themselves, which often results in upward comparisons, comparisons with others who are superior to themselves or more advantaged in some way.
Social comparison theory has inspired a great deal of research, but the history of the literature is uneven, with spikes of activity in 1966 and 1977, and then a more steady output since the early 1980s. The theory has been applied beyond opinions and abilities to emotions and to all kinds of personal attributes (e.g., personality traits). Although Festinger devoted much of his theory to interpersonal processes—for example, he proposed that the need for similar comparison with others leads to pressures toward uniformity in groups—social comparison researchers have focused mostly on individuals and their selections of individual comparison targets. During the 1990s, studies of the individual’s reactions to social comparisons grew more numerous as well.
Who Is a Relevant Social Comparison Target?
The most frequently asked question in the social comparison literature has been, “With whom do people choose to compare themselves?” Festinger’s similarity hypothesis was ambiguous as to whether similarity concerns the specific dimension under evaluation or other dimensions. For example, guitarists may compare their playing ability with those of others who are similar in their guitar-playing ability, or with others who are similar in more general ways, such as the kind of guitar and music they play (acoustic or electric, classical or folk) or gender. The most informative, meaningful comparisons may occur with others who are similar in attributes related to the dimension under evaluation. For example, guitarists can best evaluate their playing ability if they compare them-selves with other guitarists who play similar instruments and who have been playing about the same amount of time.
Considerable evidence has attested to the importance of such related attributes. It is perplexing, however, that the dimensions of similarity need not always be related to the dimension under evaluation to be relevant. For example, people often compare themselves with same-sex others, even if the dimension of comparison has little to do with gender. Similarly, the effects of comparisons are especially strong when they are with others who are similar, even if the dimension of similarity seems to bear no relation to the dimension of comparison (e.g., comparisons with friends are more potent than comparisons with strangers).
Recent efforts to resolve such puzzles have focused on the question that the individual is seeking an answer to, such as, “What kind of person am I?” or “Can I accomplish this task?”
Goals and the Selection of Social Comparison Targets
A great deal of research has focused on how goals guide the selection of comparison targets. In the 1980s, researchers increasingly viewed the individual not as an unbiased self-evaluator but as a person with needs to feel good about himself or herself. Thomas Wills’s downward comparison theory argued that people who are unhappy seek to feel better by comparing themselves with others who are less fortunate or who are inferior to themselves.
This theory inspired a resurgence of interest in social comparison that has not abated. The 1980s also saw a shift toward field research, and considerable evidence of downward comparisons has emerged from diverse samples of people under psychological threat. Women with breast cancer and people with eating disorders, for example, have been shown to compare themselves with others who are less fortunate than themselves.
More generally, the traditional view that self-evaluative motives lead to comparisons with similar others, self-improvement motives lead to upward comparisons, and self-enhancement motives lead to downward comparisons, is giving way to the view that multiple targets can serve one’s goal, depending on the comparison context. Individuals also may use comparison strategies that do not involve target selection, such as avoiding comparisons altogether or carefully selecting one’s comparison dimensions. For example, breast cancer patients who are disadvantaged on one dimension (e.g., prognosis) may focus on a dimension on which they are relatively advantaged (e.g., “At least I’m married; it must be difficult for single women”).
Some researchers have even argued that people may create imaginary comparison targets to serve their goals. This view turns the original theory on its head; whereas Festinger viewed the individual as seeking comparisons to establish reality, this view holds that the individual fabricates reality to serve his or her goals. However, this view is by no means universally accepted.
Another relatively new view that is more widely shared is that people frequently make comparisons without deliberately selecting comparison targets. This view holds that people make comparisons by relatively automatically comparing themselves with the others they come across in their daily lives.
Effects of Social Comparisons
The traditional assumption has been that upward comparisons make people feel worse about themselves and that downward comparisons make them feel better, but research has revealed that both types of comparisons can be either inspiring or dispiriting. What determines the impact of comparisons? One important variable is whether the comparison involves a dimension that is central to one’s self-definition. For example, a musician may take pride in her brother’s superior cooking ability but be demoralized by his superior musical ability.
Additional factors that may determine the impact of comparisons include one’s beliefs about one’s control over the dimension of comparison and whether one will improve or worsen on that dimension. An upward comparison with a superior other may be inspiring, rather than demoralizing, if one thinks that one will improve and can attain the level of the upward target. In contrast, a downward comparison with an inferior other may be frightening rather than self-enhancing if one fears one will worsen, for example, that one’s illness prognosis is unfavorable.
Social Comparison Measurement Issues
Social comparison has been operationalized in many ways, including the choice of another person’s score to see, the desire to affiliate, self-reports of past comparisons, the effects of comparisons on mood and self-evaluation, and ratings of self versus others. These operationalizations have yielded results that do not always converge, perhaps partly because they capture different meanings or facets of social comparison. The possibility that comparisons may be made automatically, perhaps even outside of awareness, also threaten the validity of such measures as self-reported comparisons. Social desirability concerns also may inhibit respondents’ self-reports; people do not want to appear to be competitive, dependent on others, or, in the case of downward comparisons, as taking pleasure in others’ misfortune. Increasingly, researchers have used methods that are more naturalistic (e.g., diaries of social comparisons in daily life) or that offer richer information to research participants than did earlier methods.
Importance of Social Comparison
Comparisons with other people are widely believed to be a ubiquitous (ever-present) aspect of social life. Social comparison is also believed to have powerful effects on such outcomes as people’s well-being, their motivation to succeed, their satisfaction with their economic circumstances, and their very identities. Yet, when people are asked how they evaluate themselves and their lives, they mention social comparison infrequently. Although social comparisons might occur less frequently than social psychologists initially thought, it seems equally possible that respondents’ self-reports are inhibited by a lack of awareness that they make comparisons and by social desirability concerns.
Indeed, social comparisons may sometimes be more important than objective information. Contrary to Festinger’s belief that people rely on social comparisons only when objective standards are unavailable, research has indicated that individuals often want to know their rank relative to others in addition to, or even in preference to, objective standards. For example, a runner who already knows that he or she ran 100 meters in 15 seconds may still want to know that his or her time was the second fastest. And people do not usually regard themselves as smart, attractive, or wealthy unless they see themselves as ranking higher on these dimensions than the other people in their nearby surroundings.
- Suls, J., & Wheeler, L. (Eds.). (2000). Handbook of social comparison: Theory and research. New York: Plenum.
- Suls, J., & Wills, T. A. (Eds.). (1991). .Social comparison: Contemporary theory and research. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Wood, J. V. (1989). Theory and research concerning social comparisons of personal attributes. Psychological Bulletin, 106, 231-248.