The central idea of social comparison theory is that individuals often assess how well they are doing by comparing themselves with others around them. When Festinger (1954) originally developed the theory, he argued that individuals want an accurate assessment of their opinions and performance, and that in the absence of objective standards, they look to others (preferably those who are similar in a relevant dimension) for information about their relative standing. Individuals, he argued, seek to be right in their opinions, and have a unidirectional drive upward for their abilities.
Much of Festinger’s early work focused on individuals comparing their opinions with those of others. In a series of studies, he examined the conditions under which individuals tended to conform or dissent with other people’s judgments (e.g., about the length of a line). In the face of consistent opposition, most people conformed; in the presence of at least one other dissenting opinion, most people were willing to express their own dissenting viewpoint. Other early work confirmed the notion that individuals’ self-evaluations change depending on the types of comparisons available. In a classic study by Morse and Gergen (1970), university students competed for a job with another applicant who was either organized and well groomed (Mr. Clean) or unkempt and disorganized (Mr. Dirty). Those competing against Mr. Dirty were more positive about their own performance than those competing against Mr. Clean.
Expansion Of The Theory
The theory has subsequently expanded in multiple directions. One such direction is in the investigation of various additional domains of comparison, including personal values (e.g., “Do other people think this is as important as I do?”) and the appropriateness of emotional responses (e.g., “Are others as scared as I am?”). Some researchers have also pointed out that the drive for self-evaluation and comparison is not always present: Individuals sometimes want to avoid closure on a particular topic and suspend judgment about themselves.
Another direction in which the theory has expanded is in studying additional motives for comparison. Despite Festinger’s initial emphasis on accurate self-evaluations, research suggests that there may be several other common motives.
One alternative motive is self-enhancement. That is, individuals may sometimes seek out comparisons that make them feel good about themselves (rather than focusing on accurate information). Wills (1981) argued that when individuals want to engage in self-enhancement they make downward social comparisons – that is, they look for others who are doing less well on a relevant dimension in order to feel relatively successful. For those seeking self-enhancement, upward comparisons with those performing better were predicted to be ego-threatening and stressful. Psychologists such as Wood (2000) and Taylor (1991; Taylor et al. 1990) have studied individuals experiencing threat or stress (such as breast cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, or negative feedback about test performance). Numerous studies have reported on the tendency to seek out ego-enhancing, reassuring information about others who were less fortunate or coping less well.
A related line of research associated with Taylor and her colleagues (Taylor 1991) has focused on the benefits of positive illusions. Positive (though unrealistic) beliefs that one is doing better than most other people in the same situation have been correlated with prospective psychological adjustment and lowered physiological indicators of stress. The absence of such illusions has been associated with negative emotions and even depression. A contrasting view is that not all positive illusions are beneficial and that self-enhancement can be detrimental. In some studies, individuals who rated themselves much more positively than others rated them generally showed long-term negative outcomes. A recent suggestion is that one way to resolve this seeming inconsistency is to distinguish between self-enhancement as social comparison (rating oneself more positively than one rates other people) and self-enhancement as poor self-insight (rating oneself more positively than other people rate one). Self-enhancement via social comparison may be linked to positive results, while poor self-insight may be linked to negative results (Kwan et al. 2004).
Other motives for social comparison include self-improvement and inspiration. That is, at times individuals may seek out information about those performing brilliantly. Such comparisons may provide hope for the individual’s possible future, information about how to perform similarly, and motivation to work hard.
Targets For Social Comparisons
In an extended critique of the theory, Kruglanski and Mayseless (1990) argued that a central weakness of social comparison theory lies in the difficulty of predicting who would be a relevant or similar target for comparison, even when an individual’s motives are given. For example, even if a female runner were seeking an accurate self-evaluation, it is unclear whether she would compare herself to another runner of similar age, or another runner of similar experience, or another woman runner, or a runner with similar racing style.
Moreover, the variety of motives for social comparison suggests that similarity of target is not always the primary concern. Taylor et al. (1990) pointed out that Festinger’s description of a unidirectional drive upward for abilities is ambiguous and has been interpreted in various ways in the empirical literature. Some researchers interpret this to mean that (for example) the hypothetical runner would try to improve her performance by comparing herself with slightly better runners; others have focused on her motivation to compare herself with less talented runners.
The traditional view is that people who want accurate information for self-evaluation of opinions or abilities would choose a similar or slightly better target; those seeking self-enhancement would choose downward comparisons to provide a sense of relative wellbeing; and those seeking self-improvement would look to more successful others (upward comparison) for relevant information and inspiration. More recently, however, researchers have argued that comparison choices may be even more complicated. For example, individuals seeking reassurance and self-enhancement may not want to make downward comparisons if such comparisons raise the possibility of similar bad outcomes occurring to them. Instead, these individuals may look for successful role models to provide the needed reassurance (“If they can do it, so can I”). Conversely, individuals seeking self-improvement may sometimes look to unsuccessful others to provide information about what to avoid or to create fear as motivation to work hard.
Some researchers have also argued that at times individuals may compare themselves not to others in their social environment, but to past selves (“At least I’m not as bad as I was”) or imagined others (“I’m sure I’m doing better than most other women”).
Factors Affecting The Outcomes Of Social Comparisons
Pelham and Wachsmuth (1995) pointed out that most social comparison research has focused on contrast effects (feeling better than the target of a downward comparison; feeling inferior to the target of an upward comparison). They argued that assimilation effects (overestimating the similarity between oneself and a target) also take place and may even be more common. In their description, individuals sometimes adopt the belief that “birds of a feather flock together” and exaggeratedly assign to themselves the qualities of those around them, rather than perceiving and responding to the differences. Thus a runner who trains with a pack of faster runners may not focus on the ego-damaging difference between her time and the others’ but rather consider herself a fast runner to be part of such a speedy group.
Researchers have studied the factors that affect whether individuals will engage in contrast or assimilation. In various studies, assimilation has been observed to occur when individuals do not explicitly evaluate the comparison target; when they share a close bond, common attributes, or group membership with the comparison target; and when they are very confident in their self-image and so do not tend to engage in explicit self-evaluations and comparisons. Conversely, contrast effects have been observed to occur when individuals explicitly evaluate the comparison target and use it as a reference point for evaluating the self, and when they are less confident of their self-image and hence more interested in making self-evaluations.
Another relevant factor is whether individuals think they can change on the relevant dimension, and in what direction. When individuals believe they can improve, an upward comparison can be inspiring. When improvement is not seen as possible, upward comparisons can be demoralizing. When individuals fear they may decline, downward comparisons may be frightening, but when they are sure they will not decline, downward comparisons may be ego-enhancing. In a series of studies by Lockwood and her colleagues (e.g., Lockwood & Kunda 1997), individuals who were first asked to think about their most successful moments and subsequently read about a highly superior superstar appeared to be struck by the contrast between their best and the superstar’s best, and were accordingly demoralized. Those who were not asked to recall their best performance appeared to engage in affiliation with the superstar and gave more positive self-evaluations.
Yet another important variable affecting the outcome of comparisons appears to be whether they relate to an ability or trait that is central to one’s self-definition. The runner may feel proud (rather than demoralized) that her father can sing better than she can, but feel humiliated if he beats her in a race.
Thus, the people individuals select for comparison, and whether they engage in upward or downward comparison, assimilation, or contrast, seems to vary greatly depending on a number of factors. Moreover, Wood (2000) pointed out that researchers have varied substantially in their measures of social comparison and its effects and that this variation has led to numerous instances of inconsistent findings.
Use Of Social Comparison Theory In Communications Research
Despite these complications, the central tenet of social comparison theory (that individuals compare themselves to others and alter their self-evaluations accordingly) is at the heart of many accounts of media effects, even when it is not explicitly acknowledged. For example, much of the criticism of unrealistic media portrayals of body images rests on the assumption that viewers (particularly young teens) will compare their bodies to those media images and engage in destructive behaviors as a result. The outcomes of studies of media use and eating disorders reflect the joint processes of assimilation (e.g., thin women feeling better after watching images of thin, attractive models) and contrast (e.g., women feeling worse about themselves after seeing images of thin, attractive models). Social comparison theory is also related to notions of wishful identification with media characters (both fictional and nonfictional).
Other media scholars have used the notion of relevant similarity to explain viewers’ preferences for media characters that are same-sex or same-age. Researchers who address the possible effects of media content on self-categorization and social identity (e.g., among older viewers) are also making use of social comparison theory.
Social comparison theory has been used to predict patterns of selective exposure to positively or negatively valenced media content. Examples include individuals’ choice of health-related content on the Internet, or their choice of whether to listen to sad or happy songs about love. In a series of studies, Knobloch and Zillmann (e.g., 2003) found that students who were romantically dissatisfied preferred to listen to sad songs, presumably to avoid the pain of upward comparison.
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