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Social comparison is an aspect of social perception, and has developed from a theory initially proposed by social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954. This theory explains how individuals evaluate their own opinions and desires by comparing themselves to others.
The social comparison theory (Festinger, 1954) is the idea that there is a drive within individuals to look to outside images in order to evaluate their own opinions and abilities. These images may be a reference to physical reality or in comparison to other people. People look to the images portrayed by others to be obtainable and realistic, and subsequently, make comparisons among themselves, others and the idealized images.
In his initial theory, Festinger hypothesized several things. First, he stated that humans have a drive to evaluate themselves by examining their opinions and abilities in comparison to others. To this, he added that the tendency to compare oneself with some other specific person decreases as the difference between his opinion or ability and one’s own become more divergent. He also hypothesized that there is an upward drive towards achieving greater abilities, but that there are non-social restraints which make it nearly impossible to change them, and that this is largely absent in opinions (Festinger, 1954).
He continued with the idea that to cease comparison between one’s self and others causes hostility and deprecation of opinions. His hypotheses also stated that a shift in the importance of a comparison group will increase pressure towards uniformity with that group. However, if the person, image or comparison group is too divergent from the evaluator, the tendency to narrow the range of comparability becomes stronger (Festinger, 1954). To this he added that people who are similar to an individual are especially good in generating accurate evaluations of abilities and opinions (Suls, Martin, & Wheeler, 2002). Lastly, he hypothesized that the distance from the mode of the comparison group will affect the tendencies of those comparing; that those who are closer will have stronger tendencies to change than those who are further away (Festinger, 1954).
Since its introduction to communications and social psychology, research has shown that social comparisons are more complex than initially thought, and that people play a more active role in comparisons (Suls, Martin & Wheeler 2002). A number of revisions, including new domains for comparison and motives, have also been made since 1954. Motives that are relevant to comparison include self-enhancement, perceptions of relative standing, maintenance of a positive self-evaluation, closure, components of attributes and the avoidance of closure (Kruglanski & Mayseless, 1990; Suls, Martin, & Wheeler, 2002).
Several models have been introduced to social comparison, including the Proxy Model and the Triadic Model. The Proxy model anticipates the success of something that is unfamiliar. The model proposes that if a person is successful or familiar to a similar task, then they would also be successful at a new task. The Triadic Model proposes that people with similar attributes and opinions will be relevant to each other and therefore influential to each other (Suls, Martin, & Wheeler, 2002).
Two main types of comparisons exist in social comparison: upward and downward. Upward social comparison occurs when individuals compare themselves to others who are deemed socially better than us in some way. People intentionally compare themselves with others so that they can make their self views more positive. In this type of comparison, people want to believe themselves to be one of the elite, and make comparisons showing the similarities in themselves and the comparison group. (Suls, Martin & Wheeler 2002).
Downward social comparison acts in the opposite direction. Downward social comparison is a defensive tendency to evaluate oneself with a comparison group whose troubles are more serious than one's own. This tends to occur when threatened people look to others who are less fortunate than themselves. Downward comparison theory emphasizes the positive effects of comparisons, which people tend to make then when they feel happy rather than unhappy. For example, a breast cancer patient may have had a lumpectomy, but sees themselves as better off than another patient who lost their breast (Suls, Martin & Wheeler 2002).
While there have been changes in Festinger’s original concept, many fundamental aspects remain, including the similarity in the comparison groups, the tendency towards social comparison and the general process that is social comparison (Kruglanski, & Mayseless, 1990).
In the 1950’s, Festinger was given as grant from the Behavioral Sciences Division of the Ford Foundation. This grant was part of the research program of the Laboratory for Research in Social Relations, which developed the Social Comparison Theory (Festinger, 1954). The development of social comparison hinged on several socio-psychological processes, and in order to create this theory, Festinger used research from colleagues that focused on social communication, group dynamics, the autokinetic effect, compliant behavior, social groups and level of aspiration (Festinger, 1954; Kruglanski & Mayseless, 1990). In his article, he sourced various experiments with children and adults, however, much of his theory was based on his own research (Festinger, 1954).
When understanding the basis of social comparison, it is imperative to understand that no one thought process created the theory, but rather, a compellation of experiments, historical evidence and philosophical thought. While Festinger was the first social psychologist to coin the term “Social Comparison”, the general concept can not be claimed exclusively by him (Suls & Wheeler, 2000). In fact, this theory’s origins can be dated back to Aristotle and Plato. Plato spoke of comparisons of self-understanding and absolute standards. Aristotle was concerned with comparisons between people. Later, philosophers such as Kant, Marx and Rousseau spoke on moral reasoning and social inequality. (Suls, Martin, & Wheeler, 2002).
- Interpersonal attraction
- Interpersonal compatibility
- Personality judgment
- Relative deprivation
- Social comparison bias
- Social evaluation
- Self monitoring (personality)
- Social influences
- Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7(2) 117-140.
- Goethals, G.R. & Darley, J.M. (1977). Social comparison theory: An attributional approach. In J.M. Suls & R.L. Miller (Eds.), Social comparison processes: Theoretical and empirical perspectives (pp 259-278). Washington, DC: Hemisphere.
- Kruglanski, A. W., & Mayseless, O. (1990). Classic and current social comparison research: Expanding the perspective. Psychological Bulletin, 108(2), 195-208.
- Martin, M. C., & Kennedy, P. F. (1993). Advertising and social comparison: Consequences for female preadolescents and adolescents. Psychology and Marketing, 10, 513-530.
- 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.
- Suls, J., & Wheeler, L. (2000). A Selective history of classic and neo-social comparison theory. Handbook of Social Comparison. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.
- Miller, K. (2005). Communication theories: Perspectives, processes, and contexts. New York: McGraw Hill.
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