Social Comparison Theory

05.04.2023 |

Episode #5 of the course Psychology of the self by Psychology Insights Online


Welcome back! In the last lesson, we talked about how we see ourselves by looking inward; however, in this lesson, the focus is on turning our attention toward other people. That is, looking at the traits, values, behaviors, and skills of other people as a basis for comparison for better understanding our own self-concept.

Take a second and think back to your childhood. When was the first time you remember comparing yourself to someone else? Maybe it was a sibling or maybe another kid at the playground. By the time we get to school, the comparisons with other children of the same age are on full display. This is especially the case when it comes to grades. It starts young and continues all the way through college and university. Students want to know where they stand in comparison to other people. Did I do okay on the test? How did others in the class do? Am I a good student? The answers to these questions require comparisons with similar others. Adults are no different. Once they start, the comparisons never really end.

Leon Festinger was a brilliant social psychologist who made numerous important contributions to psychology. One of his more significant theories was Social Comparison Theory (Festinger, 1954). Festinger believed that we look to others as a means for better understanding ourselves and our status in the world. If you think about it, how else would we know if we are achieving our goals if we didn’t have a standard with which to compare? In his theory, he suggested that we all use both upward and downward social comparisons. An upward social comparison describes when we compare ourselves to a person or group that we think is better in some way. For example, let’s say that you are a new tennis player. You might look to other people at your tennis club who have been playing for longer as your basis for comparison. In contrast, a downward social comparison occurs when a person looks to be people who are less skilled or possibly worse off in some way. For the tennis example, maybe you compare yourself to another new player who isn’t as good at tennis as you are.

When do we make these comparisons? Research has found that people will be more likely to make upward comparisons when they want information on how they are doing, especially if there is no other objective data that they can draw from. For downward social comparisons, people will be more likely to do this when they want to feel good about themselves, in other words, to improve their self-esteem. This makes sense. If someone else is worse off, a person can tell themselves, “Well, at least I am better off than they are.”

With whom do we make social comparisons? Usually, we attempt to make these comparisons with other people who are like us. If you are a college student, you would be more likely to compare your essay writing ability with other students, not your professor. The same goes for downward comparisons. If you were to choose a person who is clearly not a good basis for comparison, you likely wouldn’t feel better about yourself. Most of us recognize this and instead focus on comparators who are a good fit. For example, research suggests that students will make upward social comparisons with other students who may be doing better in a particular academic subject to motivate their own performance (Boissicat et al., 2020). Other research has found that athletes who make upward social comparisons with other athletes who are slightly better will see a later improvement in their performance. However, if they choose someone who is much better as a basis for comparison, they can become less motivated. Similar findings occurred with downward social comparisons (Diel et al., 2021).

Social comparison theory has experienced a resurgence in the psychology literature thanks to social media. Numerous recent studies have found that scrolling through social media leads to a lot of social comparisons. Not surprisingly, this has had a very negative impact on mental health. For instance, several studies have found that social comparisons with other people on social media often lead to reduced well-being, and this is especially the case among people who already have lower self-esteem (Tiggemann & Slater, 2014). This makes sense as people often portray their best selves (e.g., accomplishments, vacations, parties, etc.) on social media and are less likely to show themselves in a negative light. It is easy to feel down on yourself when you see everyone else having such a great time!

That brings us to the end of this lesson on social comparisons. In the next lesson, we are going to cover what is likely the most discussed topic when it comes to the self, self-esteem. See you again soon!


Recommended book

The Comparison Cure: How to Be Less “Them” and More “You” by Lucy Sheridan


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