Psychology Of Social Comparison Research Paper

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Social comparison occurs when an individual compares himself or herself to another person. The dimension on which the comparison is made can be almost anything—attractiveness, tennis skill, wealth, etc. The comparison might be deliberately sought, or it might occur by chance. It is not social comparison when one compares one person to another, as in comparing one neighbor to another; the individual making the comparison must be included in the comparison for it to fit the commonly accepted definition.



1. The Original Theory

Leon Festinger’s (1954) paper, A Theory of Social Comparison Processes, still serves as the basic formulation, although there have been many additions and revisions. Festinger argued that it is necessary for people to know what they are capable of doing and to hold correct opinions about the world. Sometimes people can perform a physical reality test on their abilities and opinions, but that could be dangerous, inconvenient, or impossible. For example, if individuals want to know whether they can swim across a swift river, they could simply try it, but that could be dangerous. If it is a person’s opinion that the Russian Revolution would not have occurred without V. I. Lenin, there is simply no physical reality test of the truth of that opinion. Consequently, people often seek social reality rather than physical reality for their abilities and opinions, and that social reality is obtained through social comparison.

1.1 Similarity

A cornerstone of Festinger’s theory is that comparison with others who are similar provides better information than comparison with dissimilar others. The theory was ambiguous, however, about the concept of similarity, and critics argued that if an individual already knows that someone is similar, that implies that a comparison has already been made and that further comparison with that person would be redundant. Goethals and Darley (1977) combined attribution theory with social comparison theory and suggested that similarity should refer to similarity on ‘related attributes,’ attributes correlated with and predictive of the particular ability or opinion to be evaluated. To answer the question, ‘How good a tennis player am I?’ a person should compare with someone of the same age, gender, physical condition, and tennis experience. The person should logically expect to perform equally to that comparison target and, if this turns out to be so, would probably feel that he or she is a fairly good player (‘as good as I ought to be’). If the comparison is with someone advantaged (or disadvantaged) on related attributes, the person would expect to lose (or to win) and, if this turns out to be so, wouldn’t be able to draw any clear conclusion about his or her ability level. The person wouldn’t know whether the loss or win was due to ability or to the related attributes. ‘Did I win because I am a good tennis player, or because I am in better physical condition?’

1.2 The Unidirectional Drive Upward

An important difference between opinions and abilities in Festinger’s theory is a unidirectional dri e upward for abilities but not for opinions. Regardless of the ability, people would generally like to have more of it than other people have. With opinions, however, people feel confident when they have the same opinions as others. Thus, all the members of a group can be satisfied when they have the same opinion, but not when they have exactly the same level of ability.

2. Methods For Studying Social Comparison

The three major methods for studying social comparison are ‘selection’ approaches, which examine characteristics of the people with whom individuals choose to compare; ‘reaction’ approaches, which examine individuals’ emotional or cognitive reactions to comparison information; and ‘narration’ approaches, which examine individuals’ self-reports of comparisons made (Wood 1996). Each of these will be examined below.

2.1 The Selection Approach

Individuals are given the choice of two or more comparison targets that differ in theoretically important ways. The choices they make (and related data) provide clues concerning social comparison motives. The first notable example, known as the ‘rank order paradigm,’ was introduced to study the unidirectional drive upward. Experimental participants were tested on a (fictitious) desirable or undesirable personality trait such as ‘intellectual flexibility’ or ‘intellectual rigidity’ and were told that they occupied the middle rank in a group of several other participants tested at the same time. Participants were given their own (fictitious) score on the test, as well as the rank of each of the other participants, and were told that they could be shown the score of one other person in the group. The rank of the person participants chose to see could be of someone better off than themselves (known as an ‘upward comparison’) or worse off than themselves (a ‘downward comparison’). In most of the experiments using this method, participants made upward comparisons. That is, they wanted to compare their scores to better scores, either more flexible or less rigid (Wheeler et al. 1969). They believed that they were similar to and almost as good as those better off than themselves and chose to compare with these others in order to confirm that similarity.

2.2 The Reaction Approach

Individuals are presented with social comparison information, and their responses to that information are measured. In what is known as the Mr. Clean Mr. Dirty study, job applicants casually encountered another applicant whose appearance was either socially desirable (dark suit, well-groomed, and confident) or socially undesirable (torn and smelly clothes, poorly-groomed, confused). Those participants who encountered Mr. Clean showed a decrease in self-esteem measured a few minutes later, whereas those who encountered Mr. Dirty increased in self-esteem (Morse and Gergen 1970). In this research, participants contrasted themselves against the other job applicant, but this is not always what happens. For example, Van der Zee et al. (1998) exposed cancer patients to a bogus interview with another patient who was doing better than participants (upward comparison) or worse (downward comparison). Patients responded with more positive affect to upward than to downward comparisons, particularly those patients who scored high on a measure of identification with the upward comparison patient. Collins (1996) called this ‘upward assimilation,’ the perception that one is similar to superior others. This is opposed to ‘upward contrast,’ in which comparing with someone who is better off (like Mr. Clean) makes people feel worse about themselves.

2.3 The Narrative Approach

This approach attempts to measure the comparisons that people make or have made in their everyday lives. At the most basic level, participants are sometimes asked who they have compared themselves with in the past. This places too great a burden on memory, however, and a better method is the Social Comparison Record, a diary recording of all comparisons as they occur over a period of two weeks, including the dimension of comparison (e.g., appearance, happiness), the direction (e.g., upward, downward), relationship to the target (e.g., friend, stranger), and mood before and after the comparison (Wheeler and Miyake 1992).

Free response measures are also narrative in approach. These are spontaneous statements, usually made during the course of an interview or conversation, implying comparisons. Wood et al. (1985) reported that breast cancer patients made many free response comparison statements, most of which seemed to indicate downward comparison, such as ‘I think I am coping a little better than these other women.’

3. Downward Comparison Theory

The rank-order experiments drew attention to the difference between upward and downward comparisons, and one of the experiments (Hakmiller 1966) demonstrated downward comparison. Participants who were threatened with having a very high score on the undesirable personality trait ‘hostility toward one’s parents’ chose to compare with others who had even more of the trait. This was a downward comparison because it was with someone worse off than themselves. By verifying that someone had even more of the negative trait than themselves, participants could defend their self-esteem. Influenced by this research, Wills (1981) proposed a theory of downward comparison—that persons experiencing threat or negative affect will enhance their subjective well-being through comparison with someone worse off than themselves, thereby reducing distress. This prediction received support from studies of cancer and other medical patients, particularly those studies using free response measures (see Buunk and Gibbons 1997).

3.1 Challenges To Downward Comparison Theory

There is substantial controversy about the empirical support for downward comparison theory. The theory makes the intuitively appealing prediction that when people are experiencing distress they will make a downward comparison to reduce the distress. Others have questioned whether people experiencing distress are psychologically capable of making a downward comparison; their attention may be so focused on their distress that they are unable to see others as being worse off than themselves. In research using the Social Comparison Record (see above), Wheeler and Miyake (1992) found that when participants were experiencing negative affect, they made upward comparisons rather than the downward comparisons predicted by downward comparison theory. In contrast, when the same participants were experiencing positive affect, they made downward comparisons. Such a result is not consistent with downward comparison theory but is consistent with affect-cognition priming models in which affect primes (makes ready and available) cognitions about the self that are congruent with the affect. Experiencing negative affect primes a person to have negative thoughts about the self and thus to see others as superior to the self, leading to a contrastive upward comparison and further feelings of inferiority and negative affect.

4. A Return To The Concerns Of The Original Theory

4.1 Abilities

It should be apparent that Festinger’s (1954) original theory is very different from most of the subsequent research and theory. Festinger was concerned with social comparison providing accurate evaluation of one’s opinions and abilities, whereas much of the later work was concerned with how social comparison relates to how people feel about themselves. Some recent work has returned to Festinger’s original concerns. For example, one of the questions addressed by Festinger’s theory was ‘Can I do X?’ Can I swim across the river? Can I complete a college degree? Can I have both a family and a career? One way to answer such questions is to compare oneself to someone— called a proxy—who has already succeeded at the task (Martin 2000). If people seem to have the same amount or more of the ability or abilities required as the proxy does, they could conclude with some confidence that they could also perform the task. There are two ways that people can be confident that they have as much of the underlying ability as the proxy: (a) they have competed directly against the proxy and have performed as well as the proxy when the proxy was performing to maximum, or (b) they have observed the proxy performing, are unsure whether the proxy was performing to maximum, but are similar to the proxy on attributes related to the ability. In both cases they have established with some degree of certainty that they are similar in ability to the proxy and thus have the same action possibilities.

4.2 Opinions And Attitudes

Suls (2000) proposed that the social comparison of opinions is best considered in terms of three different evaluative situations: preference assessment (i.e., ‘Do I like X?’), belief assessment (i.e., ‘Is X correct?’), and preference prediction (i.e., ‘Will I like X?’). Each evaluative question is associated with a different comparison dynamic. (a) If the question is ‘Do I like X?,’ persons similar in related attributes have special importance. Thus, in deciding whether one likes a new political candidate, a person should prefer comparison with someone with similar political values and goals. Such a comparison target should share one’s assessment of the candidate, and if not, something is amiss, and the situation should be re-examined. (b) If the question is ‘Is X correct?,’ comparisons with persons of more advantaged status (or ‘expert’) are most meaningful, although they also should hold certain basic values in common (the ‘similar expert’). Thus, to determine the truth of the belief that guns should not be in private hands, comparison with the opinion of an expert on the relevant statistics would be useful, but only if the expert shared one’s values about human life, freedom, etc. (c) If the question is ‘Will I like X?,’ the most meaningful comparisons are with persons who have already experienced ‘X’ and who share a consistent history of preferences. Thus, in deciding whether a movie would be enjoyable, a person would consult with someone who has seen the movie and who has in the past usually agreed or usually disagreed with the person. If the other has usually agreed, the person would expect to have the same reaction to the movie; if the other has usually disagreed, the person would expect to have an opposed reaction to the movie.

5. Prospects

There is more interest in social comparison theory now than any time in its almost half-century history because it has become clearer that comparison with other people is central to the human experience. The theory is being applied to new problems and is increasingly influencing and being influenced by other areas within psychology.


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