Social comparison theory

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Social comparison theory was initially proposed by social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954.[1] Social comparison theory is centered on the belief that there is a drive within individuals to gain accurate self-evaluations. The theory explains how individuals evaluate their own opinions and abilities by comparing themselves to others in order to reduce uncertainty in these domains, and learn how to define the self.

Following the initial theory, research began to focus on social comparison as a way of self-enhancement,[2][3] introducing the concepts of downward and upward comparisons and expanding the motivations of social comparisons.[4]

Initial framework[edit]

In the initial theory, Festinger provided nine main hypotheses. First, he stated that humans have a basic drive to evaluate their opinions and abilities and that people evaluate themselves through objective, nonsocial means (Hypothesis I).[1] Second, Festinger stated that if objective, nonsocial means were not available, that people evaluate their opinions and abilities by comparison to other people (Hypothesis II).[1] Next, he hypothesized that the tendency to compare oneself to another person decreases as the difference between their opinions and abilities becomes more divergent.[1] In other words, if someone is much different from you, you are less likely to compare yourself to that person (Hypothesis III). He next hypothesized that there is a unidirectional drive upward in the case of abilities, which is largely absent in opinions.[1] This drive refers to the value that is placed on doing better and better.[5] (Hypothesis IV). Next, Festinger hypothesizes that there are non-social restraints that make it difficult or even impossible to change one’s ability and these restraints are largely absent for opinions.[1] In other words, people can change their opinions when they want to but no matter how motivated individuals may be to improve their ability, there may be other elements that make this impossible[5] (Hypothesis V). Festinger goes on to hypothesize that the cessation of comparison with others is accompanied by hostility or derogation to the extent that continued comparison with those persons implies unpleasant consequences (Hypothesis VI). Next, any factors which increase the importance of some particular group as a comparison group from some particular opinion or ability will increase the pressure toward uniformity concerning that ability or opinion within that group. If discrepancies arise between the evaluator and comparison group there is a tendency to reduce the divergence by either attempting to persuade others, or changing their personal views to attain uniformity. However, the importance, relevance and attraction to a comparison group that affects the original motivation for comparison, mediates the pressures towards uniformity (Hypothesis VII). His next hypothesis states that if persons who are very divergent from one’s own opinion or ability are perceived as different from oneself on attributes consistent with the divergence, the tendency to narrow the range of comparability becomes stronger (Hypothesis VIII). Lastly, Festinger hypothesized that when there is a range of opinion or ability in a group, the relative strength of the three manifestations of pressures toward uniformity will be different for those who are close to the mode of the group than for those who are distant from the mode. Those close to the mode will have stronger tendencies to change the positions of others, weaker tendencies to narrow the range of comparison, and even weaker tendencies to change their own opinions (Hypothesis IX).[1]

Theoretical advances[edit]

Since its inception, the initial framework has undergone several advances. Key among these are developments in understanding the motivations that underlie social comparisons, and the particular types of social comparisons that are made. Motives that are relevant to comparison include self-enhancement [2][3] maintenance of a positive self-evaluation,[6] components of attributions and validation[7] and the avoidance of closure.[8][9] While there have been changes in Festinger's original concept, many fundamental aspects remain, including similarity, the tendency towards social comparison and the general process that is social comparison.

Self-evaluation and self-enhancement[edit]

Two functions of social comparison, according to Thorton and Arrowood (1966) are self-evaluation and self-enhancement (also referred to as 'evaluation' and 'validation of the self' by Singer). These motivations underlie how a person engages in social comparison.[5]

Later advances in theory led to self-enhancement being one of the four self-evaluation motives:, along with self-assessment, self-verification, and self-improvement.

Upward and downward social comparisons[edit]

Wills introduced the concept of downward comparison in 1981.[3] Downward social comparison is a defensive tendency that people use as a means of self-evaluation. These individuals will look to another individual or comparison group who are considered to be worse off in order to dissociate themselves from perceived similarities and to make themselves feel better about their self or personal situation. Social comparison research has suggested that comparisons with others who are better off or superior on an upward comparison can lower self-regard[10] whereas downward comparisons can elevate self-regard.[11] Downward comparison theory emphasizes the positive effects of comparisons in increasing one’s subjective well-being.[3] For example, it has been found that breast cancer patients made the majority of comparisons with patients less fortunate than themselves.[12]

People make upward comparisons, both consciously and subconsciously, with other individuals they perceive to be better than themselves in order to improve their views of self or to create a more positive perception of their personal reality. In an upward social comparison, people want to believe themselves to be part of the elite or superior, and make comparisons showing the similarities in themselves and the comparison group.[8] It has also been suggested that upward comparisons may provide an inspiration to improve, and in one study it was found that while breast cancer patients made more downward comparisons, they showed a preference for information about more fortunate others.[13]

In simple terms, downward social comparisons are more likely to make us feel better about ourselves, while upward social comparisons are more likely to motivate us to achieve more or reach higher.


Because individuals are driven upwards in the case of abilities, social comparisons can drive competition among peers.[14] In this regard, the psychological significance of a comparison depends on the social status of an individual, and the context in which their abilities are being evaluated.

Social status[edit]

Competitiveness resulting from social comparisons may be greater in relation to higher social status because individuals with more status have more to lose. In one study, students in a classroom were presented with a bonus point program where, based on chance, the grades for some students would increase and the grades for others would remain the same. Despite the fact that students could not lose by this program, higher-status individuals were more likely to object to the program, and more likely to report a perceived distributive injustice. It was suggested that this was a cognitive manifestation of an aversion to downward mobility, which has more psychological significance when an individual has more status.[15]

Proximity to a standard[edit]

When individuals are evaluated where meaningful standards exist, such as in an academic classroom where students are ranked, then competitiveness increases as proximity to a standard of performance increases. When the only meaningful standard is the top, then high-ranking individuals are most competitive with their peers, and individuals at low and intermediate ranks are equally competitive. However, when both high and low rankings hold significance, then individuals at high and low ranks are equally competitive, and are both more competitive than individuals at intermediate ranks.[16][17]

Models of social comparison[edit]

Several models have been introduced to social comparison, including the Self-Evaluation Maintenance Model (SEM),[10] Proxy Model,[18] the Triadic Model and the Three-Selves Model.[19]

Self-Evaluation Maintenance Model[edit]

The SEM model proposes that we make comparisons to maintain or enhance our self-evaluations, focusing on the antagonistic processes of comparison and reflection.[10] Abraham Tesser has conducted research on self-evaluation dynamics that has taken several forms. A self-evaluation maintenance (SEM) model of social behavior focuses on the consequences of another person’s outstanding performance on one’s own self-evaluation. It sketches out some conditions under which the other’s good performance bolsters self-evaluation, i.e., "basking in reflected glory", and conditions under which it threatens self-evaluation through a comparison process. [20]

Proxy Model[edit]

The Proxy Model anticipates the success of something that is unfamiliar. The model proposes that if a person is successful or familiar with a task, then he or she would also be successful at a new similar task. The proxy is evaluated based on ability and is concerned with the question "Can I do X?" A proxy's comparison is based previous attributes. The opinion of the comparer and whether the proxy exerted maximum effort on a preliminary task are variables influencing his or her opinion.[8]

Triadic Model[edit]

The Triadic Model builds on the attribution elements of social comparison, proposing that opinions of social comparison are best considered in terms of 3 different evaluative questions: preference assessment (i.e., “Do I like X?”), belief assessment (i.e., “Is X correct?”), and preference prediction (i.e., “Will I like X?”). In the Triadic Model the most meaningful comparisons are with a person who has already experienced a proxy and exhibits consistency in related attributes or past preferences.[8]

Three-Selves Model[edit]

The Three-Selves Model proposes that social comparison theory is a combination of two different theories. One theory is developed around motivation and the factors that influence the type of social comparison information people seek from their environment and the second is about self-evaluation and the factors that influence the effects of social comparisons on the judgments of self.[19] While there has been much research in the area of comparison motives, there has been little in the area of comparative evaluation. Explaining that the self is conceived as interrelated conceptions accessible depending upon current judgment context[21] and taking a cue from Social Cognitive Theory, this model examines the Assimilation effect and distinguishes three classes of working Self-concept ideas: individual selves, possible selves and collective selves.

Media influence[edit]

The media has been found to play a large role in social comparisons. Researchers examining the social effects of the media have used social comparison theory have found that in most cases women tend to engage in upward social comparisons with a target other, which results in more negative feelings about the self. The majority of women have a daily opportunity to make upward comparison by measuring themselves against some form of societal ideal. Social comparisons have become a relevant mechanism for learning about the appearance-related social expectations among peers and for evaluating the self in terms of those standards” (Jones, 2001, P. 647).

Although men do make upward comparisons, research finds that more women make upward comparisons and are comparing themselves with unrealistically high standards presented in the media.[22] As women are shown more mainstream media images of powerful, successful and thin women, they perceive the “ideal” to be the norm for societal views of attractive. Some women have reported making upward comparisons in a positive manner for the purposes of self-motivation, but the majority of upward comparisons are made when the individual is feeling lesser and therefore evoke a negative connotation.


Many criticisms arose regarding Festinger’s similarity hypothesis. Deutsch and Krauss[23] argued that people actually seek out dissimilar others in their comparisons maintaining that this is important for providing valuable self-knowledge, as demonstrated in research.[24][25] Ambiguity also circulated about the important dimensions for similarity. Goethals and Darley clarified the role of similarity suggesting that people prefer to compare those who are similar on related attributes such as opinions, characteristics or abilities to increase confidence for value judgments, however those dissimilar in related attributes are preferred when validating one’s beliefs.[7]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human relations, 7(2), 117-140.
  2. ^ a b Gruder, C. L. (1971). Determinants of social comparison choices. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 7(5), 473-489.
  3. ^ a b c d Wills, T. A. (1981). Downward comparison principles in social psychology. Psychological bulletin, 90(2), 245.
  4. ^ Schachter, S. (1959). The psychology of affiliation: Experimental studies of the sources of gregariousness (Vol. 1). Stanford University Press.
  5. ^ a b c Suls, J., Miller, R. (1977). "Social Comparison Processes: Theoretical and Empirical Perspectives". Hemisphere Publishing Corp., Washington D.C. ISBN 0-470-99174-7
  6. ^ Tesser, A., & Campbell, J. (1982). Self-evaluation maintenance and the perception of friends and strangers. Journal of Personality, 50(3), 261-279.
  7. ^ a b Goethals, G. R., & Darley, J. (1977). Social comparison theory: An attributional approach. In J. M. Suis & R. L. Miller (Eds.), Social comparison processes: Theoretical and empirical perspectives (pp. 86-109). Washington, DC: Hemisphere.
  8. ^ a b c d Suls, J., Martin, R., & Wheeler, L. (2002). Social comparison: Why, with whom, and with what effect?. Current directions in psychological science, 11(5), 159-163.
  9. ^ Kruglanski, A. W., & Mayseless, O. (1990). Classic and current social comparison research: Expanding the perspective. Psychological bulletin, 108(2), 195-208.
  10. ^ a b c Tesser, A., Millar, M., & Moore, J. (1988). Some affective consequences of social comparison and reflection processes: the pain and pleasure of being close. Journal of personality and social psychology, 54(1), 49.
  11. ^ Gibbons, F. X. (1986). Social comparison and depression: Company's effect on misery. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(1), 140.
  12. ^ Wood, J. V., Taylor, S. E., & Lichtman, R. R. (1985). Social comparison in adjustment to breast cancer. Journal of personality and social psychology, 49(5), 1169.
  13. ^ Taylor, S. E., & Lobel, M. (1989). Social comparison activity under threat: Downward evaluation and upward contacts. Psychological review, 96(4), 569-575.
  14. ^ Chen, P. & Garcia, S. M. (manuscript) "Yin and Yang Theory of Competition: Social Comparison and Evaluation Apprehension Reciprocally Drive Competitive Motivation". link.
  15. ^ Burleigh, T. J., Meegan, D. V. (2013). Keeping up with the Joneses affects perceptions of distributive justice. Social Justice Research, doi:10.1007/s11211-013-0181-3.
  16. ^ Garcia, S. M., & Tor, A. (2007). Rankings, standards, and competition: Task vs. scale comparisons. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 102(1), 95–108. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2006.10.004
  17. ^ Garcia, S. M., Tor, A., & Gonzalez, R. (2006). Ranks and rivals: a theory of competition. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(7), 970–82. doi:10.1177/0146167206287640
  18. ^ Wheeler, L., Martin, R., & Suls, J. (1997). The proxy model of social comparison for self-assessment of ability. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 1(1), 54-61.
  19. ^ a b Blanton, H. (2001). Evaluating the self in the context of another: The three-selves model of social comparison assimilation and contrast. In Cognitive social psychology: The Princeton symposium on the legacy and future of social cognition (pp. 75-87). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  20. ^ Tesser, A., Social Psychology Network;
  21. ^ Markus, H., & Wurf, E. (1987). The dynamic self-concept: A social psychological perspective. Annual review of psychology, 38(1), 299-337.
  22. ^ Strahan, E. J., Wilson, A. E., Cressman, K. E., & Buote, V. M. (2006). Comparing to perfection: How cultural norms for appearance affect social comparisons and self-image. Body Image, 3(3), 211-227.
  23. ^ Deutsch, M., & Krauss, R. M. (1965). Theories in social psychology (Vol. 2). New York: Basic Books.
  24. ^ Goethals, G. R., & Nelson, R. E. (1973). Similarity in the influence process: The belief-value distinction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 25(1), 117-122.
  25. ^ Mettee, D. R., & Smith, G. (1977). Social comparison and interpersonal attraction: The case for dissimilarity. Social comparison processes: Theoretical and empirical perspectives, 69, 101.

Further reading[edit]

  • Miller, K. (2005). Communication theories: Perspectives, processes, and contexts. New York: McGraw Hill.