Social Comparison Theory

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Social Comparison


Leon Festinger published his original paper on the theory of social comparison in 1954 in the journal Human Relations. According to this theory, humans possess a drive for self-evaluation. People want to evaluate their opinions and obtain some idea of how skilled they are (Martin, 2001). People compare themselves with others when they are unable to evaluate their opinions and abilities on their own (Martin, 2001). For example, a person may know that he/she can run a mile in under five minutes. However, the person cannot know if this is a good time until he/she compares it with other people’s times. Festinger originally wrote that people receive better information when they compare themselves to similar, rather than dissimilar people. Critics argued, however, argue that if a person recognizes similarity in another, then a comparison has already been completed and further comparison would be unnecessary (Martin, 2001). Before exploring the topic more thoroughly Festinger moved on to other areas of research. His theory, however, has been studied and researched by numerous others. Later research on the topic discovered two types of social comparisons. An upward comparison occurs when an individual compares him/herself to someone who is better off (Baumeister, 2008). An amateur swimmer comparing her lap times to those of an Olympic swimmer is an example of an upward comparison. Upward comparison, however, do not occur with opinions (Martin, 2001). Given the choice, people prefer making upward rather than downward comparisons (Wills, 1981). A downward comparison occurs when an individual compares him/herself to someone who is worse off (Baumeister, 2008). Comparing one’s grade on an exam to fellow students who received lower grades is an example of downward social comparison. This type of comparison generally makes one feel better about him/herself (Martin, 2001). People with low self-esteem are more likely to make downward comparisons (Wills, 1981). Research has demonstrated that downward comparisons can either have negative or positive effects on individuals. For example, patients better dealt with the threat of breast cancer when they compared their cases with those of people who had more severe cases (Gibbons, 2005). Other correlation studies have shown, however, that students who tended to engage in downward comparisons during the beginning of the semester have done significantly worse academically by the end of the semester than students who engaged in upward comparisons (Gibbons, 2005). Two types of downward comparisons have been defined. A passive downward comparison occurs when an individual takes advantage of a preexisting situation and makes a comparison (Wills, 1981). For example, cancer patients comparing themselves to worse off cancer patients is an example of a passive downward comparison. They did not give the other patients cancer. An active downward comparison occurs either through derogation or actively causing harm to others (Wills, 1981). Derogation occurs when an individual belittles the target of his/her comparison, with or without that target’s knowledge. Derogation allows an individual to place more distance between him/her and the target. By actively causing harm to others, individuals create situations in which others will be worse off then themselves, thus presenting them the opportunity to make downward comparisons (Wills, 1981).

Baumeister, Roy F. and Bushman, Brad J. (2008). Chapter 3. Social Psychology and Human Nature (1st Edition). (pp.82-83, 99). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. Gibbons, Frederick X., Gerrard, Meg, Lane, David J., and Stock, Michelle L. (2005). Smoking Cessation: Social Comparison Level Predicts Success for Adult Smokers. Health Psychology, 24, 623-629. Retrieved March 30, 2008 from Psychology.iastate.edu. Martin, R., Suls, J., and Wheeler, L. (2001). Psychology of Social Comparison. (Electronic version). International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, 14254-14257. Wills, T. A. (1981). Downward comparison principles in social psychology. Psychological Bulletin, 90, 245–271. Retrieved March 30, 2008 from psychnet.apa.org.





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