A simple but powerful insight about how people evaluate themselves is that these evaluations often result from comparisons with others. How do people know if they can run fast? Do they run around a track and simply examine their times? No, they compare their times with that of others. How do people know if their opinions are correct? Is there an objective standard to which they can turn? No, people are likely to consult the views of those around them and conform to the majority view.
Although an age-old idea and variously found as a building block for many theories of social behavior across disciplines, this insight was first systematically thought through by the social psychologist Leon Festinger in his now classic 1954 paper, “A Theory of Social Comparison Processes.” Festinger pointed out that most judgments about the self, in the absence of objective criteria, must be based on social comparisons. In fact, he claimed that this lack of objective criteria was the typical state of affairs, leading to the conclusion that much of what people infer about themselves has relativistic roots.
Festinger also posited a human drive to self-evaluate because accurate self-evaluation should be adaptive. It was to the human organism’s benefit to know its abilities accurately and to assess the prevailing attitudes of others.
Another claim of the theory was that similar others are sought for self-evaluation because they are most useful for accurate self-evaluation. More precisely, people prefer comparisons with others who are similar on attributes that are relevant for the comparison. A male high school student would not compare his running time with that of an inexperienced, female middle school student. He would use the running times of other male runners of similar age and training. Likewise, with regard to opinions, people seek out and usually conform to the opinion of people with whom they share important group characteristics.
Festinger’s claim for the adaptive implications of seeking social comparisons fits well with evolutionary psychology. Ranking on various characteristics often determines survival and access to resources that lead to reproductive success. Human beings, by this logic, should be highly attuned to social comparisons and the variations in rank that they reveal.
Social comparison theory has evolved in a number of directions. Philip Brickman and Ronnie J. Bulman (1977) pointed out that the potentially weighty implications for the self resulting from social comparisons mean that these comparisons can produce both pain and pleasure. Upward social comparisons, with individuals who are superior to oneself, can often undermine feelings of self-worth. Such social comparisons might often be avoided as much as sought. Downward social comparisons, with individuals who are inferior to oneself, may bolster feelings of self-worth. Social comparisons of this sort may be sought and savored. Thus, because of either their self-threatening or bolstering effects, social comparisons may serve as much to protect or enhance the self as to further accurate self-evaluation.
Brickman and Bulman focused largely on the pain of inferiority and the pleasures of superiority, but more recent thinking emphasizes that people are quite capable of having either positive or negative reactions to both upward and downward social comparisons. One might suppose that upward comparisons would typically lead to contrast effects, that is, the conclusion of relative inferiority. But partly because of robust judgmental biases allowing individuals to construe themselves as better than they are, an upward comparison can actually boost self-evaluation. In this sense, people assimilate toward the social comparison target, enhancing self-views. Also, one might think that downward comparisons would typically lead to contrast effects and the conclusion of relative superiority. But, downward comparisons, despite self-serving biases, can also produce assimilation effects. This might occur when another person’s inferior status suggests a similar fate for oneself, producing anxiety rather than a pleasing sense of superiority.
What determines assimilation versus contrast? Perceptions of control seem to be especially important. In the case of upward social comparisons, if people believe that another’s superiority suggests something attainable, then pleasing assimilative reactions can occur. If the superiority suggests an unattainable goal, however, then displeasing contrastive reactions should result. Thus, a freshman might look at the success of a senior as hopeful indication of what he or she might end up achieving; but an underachieving fellow senior might experience this comparison in a depressive, contrastive fashion. Indeed, one way of suggesting how much social comparisons influence everyday life is to note the many emotions that people feel as a result of social comparisons, depending on whether the comparisons are upward or downward, contrastive or assimilative. Upward comparisons, when they produce contrastive effects can lead to the painful, often hostile emotions of envy, resentment, or shame. When they are assimilative in nature, they can lead to the pleasing, beneficent emotions of admiration and inspiration. Downward comparisons, when contrastive, can produce such emotions as pride and contempt; when they are assimilative, they can produce worry, fear, or pity.
Social comparison processes continue to find a central place in many efforts to explain social behavior. One example is the vast amount of influential research inspired by social identity theory (Tajfel and Turner 1979), which assumes that a large part of a person’s identity follows from social comparisons between in-group and out-group. Another example is the research on social norms and social influence (Blanton and Christie 2003). Yet another example is the extensive, developing literature on the implications of social comparison for subjective well-being and health (Buunk and Gibbons 1997).
Research and theorizing on social comparison processes continue unabated. Festinger’s claims about why and how social comparisons influence people’s self-evaluations has received considerable support and has moved far beyond its original scope. There is little doubt about the pervasive and foundational role of social comparisons in determining self-evaluations, in influencing people’s behavior, and in shaping people’s understanding of their experiences.
SEE ALSO Cognition; Locus of Control; Motivation; Self-Esteem; Self-Perception Theory; Social Identification
Blanton, Hart, and Charlene Christie. 2003. Deviance Regulation: A Theory of Identity and Action. Review of General Psychology 7 (2): 115-149.
Brickman, Philip, and Ronnie J. Bulman. 1977. Pleasure and Pain in Social Comparison. In Social Comparison Processes: Theoretical and Empirical Perspectives, eds. Jerry M. Suls and Richard L. Miller, 149-186. Washington, DC: Hemisphere.
Buunk, Bram P., and Frederick X. Gibbons, eds. 1997. Health, Coping, and Well-Being: Perspectives from Social Comparison Theory. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Festinger, Leon. 1954. A Theory of Social Comparison Processes. Human Relations 7 (2): 117-140.
Suls, Jerry M., and Ladd Wheeler, eds. 2000. Handbook of Social Comparison: Theory and Research. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.
Tajfel, Henri, and John C. Turner. 1979. An Integrative Theory of Intergroup Conflict. In The Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations, eds. William G. Austin and Stephen Worchel, 33-47. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Richard H. Smith