Social Comparison Processes

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How do people come to understand themselves? A response to this age-old question involves what has been labeled everyone's "second favorite theory" (Goethals 1986): social comparison. The original formulation of social comparison theory (Festinger 1954) demonstrated how, in the absence of objective standards, individuals use other people to fulfill their informational needs to evaluate their own opinions and abilities. The process of social comparison underlies social evaluation (Pettigrew 1967) and relates to reference group processes (e.g., Hyman and Singer 1968), which in turn are critical to understanding diverse sociological issues pertaining, for example, to identity development, justice, interpersonal and intergroup relationships, and group decision making. Thus, the "second favorite" status of social comparison theory reflects the preference of researchers for particular theories about each of these topics, which nonetheless promote the centrality and breadth of social comparison processes in sociological pursuits. To explain the multifaceted role of social comparisons, this article first describes the theory and its elaborations and then shifts to a sampling of the extensive applications of that theory.


For nearly fifty years, social comparison theory has shifted between the categories of "lost and found" (Goethals 1986): The theory flourishes for a while and then lies dormant. Suls (1977) outlines the first twenty years of social comparison research, beginning with its inception in 1954 by the psychologist Festinger and then describing its theoretical decline while applications to affiliation (Schachter 1959), emotions (Schachter and Singer 1962), and justice (Adams 1965) emerged; its momentary revival in a 1966 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology; and its second, more enduring revival in 1977 in the form of a landmark volume of collected essays (Suls and Miller, 1977). During its fourth decade, the resurgence of social comparisons research (Wood 1989) anchored it firmly in the "found" category. Almost fifty years after its inception, its contribution to numerous substantive areas appears to be unrivaled (Suls and Wills 1991).

Festinger (1954) incorporates his observations regarding research on aspiration levels and social pressures into the premises of his formal theory of social comparison. First, individuals are driven to evaluate their abilities and opinions. That drive increases with the importance of the ability or opinion, its relevance to immediate behavior, the relevance of the group to the ability or opinion, and the individual's attraction to the group. These factors also increase the pressure toward uniformity with relevant others. Second, people first attempt to make these evaluations through objective, nonsocial means, but if those means are unavailable, they are likely to compare themselves with others. Third, individuals are likely to choose for comparison someone close to the opinion or ability in question (the "similarity hypothesis"). Festinger notes that social comparisons may be based on the similarity of attributes related to the dimension under evaluation (the "related attributes hypothesis"). As a rationale for the preference for similar comparison others, he argues that comparisons with divergent others produce imprecise and unstable evaluations. Comparisons with moderately different others (those within tolerable limits of discrepancy), however, produce changes in individuals' evaluations of their own or the others' abilities or opinions. These changes ensure uniformity in the group and reinforce stable and precise evaluations.

Although Festinger (1954) treats abilities and opinions similarly in most respects, he notes a major distinction that may influence the consequences of comparisons. In the case of abilities, the cultural value of doing "better and better" encourages individuals to make upward comparisons. Typically, because of the pressure toward uniformity, the upward drive is limited to comparisons with those who are slightly better. This unidirectional drive upward, however, inspires competition among group members that may inhibit the emergence of social uniformity. In contrast, no upward drive characterizes comparisons of opinions. In light of the pressure toward uniformity, the absence of an upward drive and the greater flexibility of opinions (compared with the nonsocial constraints on changes in abilities) suggest that a state of social quiescence is more likely to emerge in terms of the evaluation of opinions.

Despite the greater likelihood of opinion uniformity, Festinger (1954) notes that if potential comparison others have highly discrepant opinions, the cessation of the comparison process may result in hostility toward or derogation of those others. These negative reactions stem from the belief that opinion discrepancy means that an individual's opinions are incorrect. In contrast, no negative implications characterize discrepancy in abilities, which are more independent of relative value orientations, indicating different forms of "correctness."

As is suggested by his emphasis on group uniformity, one of Festinger's (1954) major concerns was to describe the role of social comparison processes in group formation and maintenance as well as social structure. Presumably, people who have similar abilities and opinions group together; as a result of their distinguishing themselves from others, segments form in society. These two implications of social comparison processes are represented in research on group decision making and intergroup relations (see below). Although Festinger's perspective suggests a wide range of implications, his theory is not definitive; in fact, Arrowood (1986) has labeled the 1954 version a "masterpiece of ambiguity." Points of ambiguity involve theoretical issues regarding the nature of social comparison per se, the motivations that underlie comparison choices, and the choice of a comparison other (especially the meaning of similarity).

In Festinger's (1957) formulation, the nature of the social comparison is oblique, referring only to nonobjective information regarding abilities and opinions. Others have extended the domain of social comparisons to include emotions (Schachter and Singer 1962), outcomes (Adams 1965), health (Buunk and Gibbons 1997), relationships (VanYperen and Buunk 1994), and traits (Thorton and Arrowood 1966, but see Suls 1986). Nonobjective information may include personal comparisons (see Masters and Keil 1987). These comparisons involve information about the self and draw attention to time as an important factor in determining the nature of comparisons. Temporal comparisons (Albert 1977) involve a "now versus then" dimension, meaning that a person compares pieces of information about an ability or opinion at different points in time.

Arrowood (1986) describes several forms of nonobjective (ability) information used in social comparison studies, for example, the presentation of two ratings (the evaluator's and that of an unidentified other), the display of a distribution of ratings that includes the evaluator's, and the presentation of the evaluator's rating along with the identifying characteristics of potential comparison others and their ratings. The latter two factors allow the development of an estimate about others in general, with the last one also allowing an assessment of similarity. Compared with objective information, relative standing generally exerts greater influence except when the desirability of objective information is great (Klein 1997). Not all methods, however, truly capture social comparison. To address this problem, Wood (1996) stresses the need for consistency between definitions and measures and the need to be wary of alternative interpretations. Insofar as information presentation stimulates the comparison process, its effects may depend on the motivations that drive the comparison.

The most explicit but general, motivation included in Festinger's (1954) perspective is that people need information. Later work, however, demonstrates that the motivations underlying social comparisons are far more extensive. Twenty years ago, Fazio (1979) specified two types of information motivations that underlie self-evaluations: (1) the "construction" motivation, referring to a person's desire to obtain information he or she lacks, and (2) the "validation" motivation, representing the use of information to determine the valid source (e.g., the person or the entity) of a person's judgment about an entity. Fazio argues that individuals appear to be motivated by construction when they lack information and by validations when they have sufficient information. Validation, however, is distinct from a third motivation: self (or ego) enhancement. Festinger (1954) hinted at the possibility of self-enhancement when he posited that in evaluating abilities, individuals are likely to make upward comparisons; by noting "how close" an individual is to a superior performer, that individual enhances the evaluation of his or her own ability. In addition to self-evaluation and self-enhancement goals, one study (Hegeson and Mickelson 1995) lists four other motives for social comparison: common bond, self-improvement, altruism, and self-destruction.

A recent trend in distinguishing among motivations is to focus on the role of self-esteem in social comparisons. Generally, individuals low in self-esteem rely more on social comparison information to meet goals of accuracy, self-enhancement, and self-improvement than do those high in self-esteem (Wayment and Taylor 1995). However, insofar as people with low self-esteem are more oriented to self-protection, they are likely to seek social comparison information that is "safe" (i.e., that carries little risk of humiliation) after receiving success feedback (Wood et al. 1994). In effect, low-esteem individuals are seizing a safe form of self-enhancement. Threats to self-esteem, especially among those who have high self-esteem, seem to stimulate more egocentric contrasts in judgments of others (Beauregard and Dunning 1998), suggesting that individuals tailor their evaluations of others to affirm their own self-worth.

That tailoring of evaluations coincides with other evidence that challenges Festinger's assumption that individuals are rational and accurate in information processing. Wood (1989) demonstrates that people are not unbiased evaluators of information about themselves and potential comparison others, and Hoorens's (1995) study captures some of those biases. Subjects comparing themselves to another person show more unrealistic optimism and illusory superiority regarding future positive events and traits than do subjects who compare another person to themselves. In other words, people perceive themselves more favorably than they perceive others. Motivations, coupled with perceptual processes, are critical in determining the choice of comparison others.

In an extensive review of the choice of comparison others, Gruder (1977) examines the conflict between evaluation and enhancement motivations. He concludes that the evaluation motivation is important in new situations and that under such conditions, individuals are likely to choose others who are similar to themselves in terms of the ability or opinion at issue. Enhancement motivations arise when enhancement is feasible. For example, in the absence of threats to self-esteem, individuals are likely to make upward, self-enhancing comparisons that provide useful information for self-improvement (Collins 1996; Blanton et al. 1999). If an upward comparison is unavoidable, individuals may deflect a threat to their self-esteem by perceptually distorting through exaggeration the performance of the other person (Alicke et al. 1997). When self-esteem is unavoidably threatened, people are more likely to make downward (defensive) comparisons (e.g., Hakmiller 1966; Taylor and Lobel 1989). In effect, to protect their self-esteem, individuals choose dissimilar others (i.e., inferior performers) for their comparisons. Researchers are examining a number of additional factors that may affect responses to upward and downward comparisons (e.g., Aspinwall and Taylor 1993). Whether individuals choose similar or dissimilar others for comparison depends in part on the nature of the dimension under scrutiny, the context (including the characteristics of potential comparison others), and the importance of the enhancement goal (Wood 1989).

Questions about the choice of comparison others typically raise the issue of the meaning of similarity. Festinger (1984) offers different yet potentially complementary definitions of similarity: closeness of ratings on abilities or opinions and attributes related to the evaluation dimension. Goethals and Darley (1977) note that similarity in the first sense is paradoxical: "[P]resumably the comparison is made in order to find out what the other's opinion or score is, yet prior knowledge of the similarity of his score or opinion is assumed as the basis for comparison" (p. 265). Those authors advocate the interpretation of similarity on the basis of "related attributes." One is likely to choose others for comparison who should be close to one's own ability or opinion by virtue of their standing on characteristics related to the evaluative dimension. Wheeler et al. (1982) review the extensive support for the related attributes hypothesis. Two trends, however, qualify that support. Kulik and Gump (1997) show that related attribute information has an effect only in the absence of information on relative performances. And Wood (1989) indicates that people choose comparisons with those with similar characteristics regardless of whether the attribute relates to the dimension under scrutiny; for example, people of the same sex are more likely to compare themselves to each other even if sex is unrelated to the ability that is being compared.

Concern with related attributes similarity and its evaluative consequences provides the basis for one of the main elaborations of social comparison theory: Goethals and Darley's (1977) attributional approach. Their approach applies Kelley's (1973) attributional concepts of discounting and augmentation (see Howard in this volume) to assess the certainty of one's standing on an ability or opinion. With regard to abilities, attribution logic focuses on the configuration of possible comparison others and one's own ability level. For example, a person who compares himself or herself to an advantaged other expects his or her performance to be worse. The implications for an ability evaluation are ambiguous, however, because other plausible causes (the superior related attributes) allow the discounting of low ability. In contrast, if an individual performed as well as or better than the advantaged other, he or she overcame inhibitory causes (the inferior related attributes), and this augments a claim to higher ability. In general, conclusive ability evaluations are likely when a person compares herself or himself to others with similar attributes. The role of attributions in evaluating opinions is more complicated because the unexpected cases (disagreement with similar others and agreement with dissimilar others) result in more useful information for validating an opinion than do the expected cases (agreement with similar others and disagreement with dissimilar others). More recent research has concentrated less on attributions than on other cognitive processes (e.g., the use of heuristics and memory) (see Masters and Keil 1987) and perceived control (see Major et al. 1991) to better understand social comparisons.

Complementing the intra- and interpersonal level focus of psychologists are sociological extensions to the level of intergroup relations. Tajfel and Turner (1979) build on Festinger's (1934) assumption that a major consequence of social comparisons to similar others is the development of groups or, in their terminology, social categories. They argue that social comparisons between categories, complemented by individuals' needs for a positive group identity (i.e., the self-enhancement motive), are likely to stimulate in-group bias. People tend to emphasize the positive characteristics of their group while derogating those of other groups. Evidence of such bias is particularly strong in competitive situations. Intergroup discrimination and conflict are the potential consequences of these intergroup comparisons.

Intergroup comparison processes form the main thrust of current research and raise issues of motivations, identity, and choice of comparison. For example, results from Rothgerber and Worchel (1997) confirm Tajfel and Turner's (1979) expectations about perceptions of groups resulting from intergroup comparisons. Disadvantaged in-group members harmed and saw as more homogeneous a disadvantaged out-group whose performance was similar to or better than that of the in-group. The effects of group status and performance, however, may be conditioned by the extent to which actors identify with their groups. High identifiers are likely to demonstrate group solidarity when there are threats to group identity in the form of a superior-status out-group comparison (Spears, Doosje, and Ellemers 1997). And Major et al. (1993) show how upward and downward group comparisons influence self-evaluations: People who compared unfavorably with in-group members reported lower self-esteem and more depressed affect than did those who compared unfavorably with out-group members.

Gartrell (1987) also emphasizes the connection between the individual and the group. Rather than relying on motives for a positive social identity, his analysis concentrates on networks—relations among concrete entities—to highlight an often overlooked aspect of comparison choice: the social context in which individuals make comparisons. The examination of a person's social network relations is a way to understand more clearly not only the selection of relevant comparisons but also whether people seek comparisons actively or passively accept those which are readily present in the network. In addition, network analyses may inform how comparison choices affect the network and influence the ties among a person's multiple networks.


This review of developments in social comparison theory raises issues at the individual, group, and intergroup levels. Similarly, the extensive applications of the theory cross levels of analysis.

Festinger's (1954) assumption that individuals are driven to evaluate themselves implies a concern with self-knowledge that underlies self-concept and identity formation as well as self esteem. A number of studies examine the role of social comparisons in shaping individual identity through the life course. For example, Chafel (1988) concludes that during childhood, achievement identities reflect first autonomous self-generated norms, then social comparison norms, and finally an integration of the two. Another study (Young and Ferguson 1979) demonstrates that across all grade levels (grades 5, 7, 9, and 12), parents are the comparison choice for the evaluation of moral issues whereas peers typically serve as a reference point for social issues, especially among older students. Moreover, it appears that social comparisons remain a major source of self-evaluation throughout a person's life (Robinson-Whelen and Kiecolt-Glaser 1997).

Just as the choice of a comparison other provides the basis for self-knowledge, comparisons of opinions within a group affect group dynamics. A large body of research examines choice shift or group polarization, in which the group voices a more extreme opinion than would be expected on the basis of initial individual opinions (see Myers and Lamm 1976). The social comparison explanation of polarization states that insofar as people want their own opinions to remain distinct from those of others, exposure to others' opinions stimulates shifts in stances to retain that uniqueness. Consequently, the subsequent group opinion is more extreme.

Concerns with justice potentially stimulate social comparisons at all levels. To assess justice, people evaluate how their rewards or outcomes stack up against what they have earned in the past (internal comparison), what another individual like them earns (local or egoistic comparison), what members of their group typically earn (referential comparison), and what their group earns compared to another group (intergroup or fraternalistic comparison). The type of comparison and the specific person or group chosen define whether an individual is likely to perceive himself or herself or the group as being unfairly treated. Justice obtains when outcomes (or the ratio of outcomes to inputs) are equal across the comparison. Equity theory (Adams 1965; "Equity" in this volume) focuses on local comparisons as the basis for individual reactions to an imbalance in outcome–input ratios, while relative deprivation theory (focusing on outcomes only) attempts to explain when an individual or group will feel deprived and opt for collective action to redress that deprivation (see Masters and Smith 1987; Olson et al. 1986).

Social comparisons underlying justice processes have been extended in two ways beyond the traditional concerns that were noted above. First, researchers have begun to explore the role of social comparisons in understanding procedural justice and its relationship to distributive justice. There is, however, contradictory evidence about whether internal self-referents (Van den Bos et al. 1998) or social referents exert greater influence on that relationship (Ambrose et al. 1991). A second emphasis is more applied: To what extent do comparisons contribute to an understanding of perceptions of fair levels of pay? For example, although women earn lower wages than men do, they do not necessarily perceive this inequality as unfair. It appears that women's perceptions stem from their comparisons with other women rather than with men in general or even with men in their same occupations, resulting in lower pay entitlements (e.g., Moore 1991; Demarais and Curtis 1997).

Although justice concerns have been applied to close relationships, the role of social comparisons in those relationships is a relatively new area of inquiry. VanYperen and Buunk (1994) review research on individuals' decisions to compare themselves to their partners or to their reference groups and the implications of those decisions. For example, people with egalitarian sex-role beliefs are likely to use their partners as a source of comparisons and in doing so enhance their relationship satisfaction; in contrast, individuals with a more traditional sex-role orientation use reference group comparisons to ensure satisfaction. Highlighting the role of motivations in the research reviewed above, Beach et al. (1998) find that reactions to comparisons between individuals in a close relationship support a self-evaluation maintenance model. Comparisons made by intimate couples also appear to parallel those which are evident in intergroup relationships: Subjects have more positive beliefs and fewer negative ones about their own relationships than they do about other relationships (Lange and Rusbult 1995)

A growing body of research examines applications of social comparison theory to health concerns (see Buunk and Gibbons 1997); as in research on close relationships, the application confirms and extends existing theoretical ideas. For example, Buunk and Ybema (1997) introduce an identification–contrast model to explain the choice of comparisons among individuals coping with stress. They suggest that individuals attempt to maintain their self-esteem by identifying upward and by finding ways, such as downward comparisons, to feel that they are doing better than others are. Affleck and Tennen (1991) also stress that downward comparisons are a means for victims of illness to find meaning in their plight and mitigate threats to their self-esteem. These authors also raise important issues involving the role of temporal comparisons in coping with illness and the need to recognize the distinctions between the comparison process and the comparison conclusion. Further extending the domain of social comparison theory, Croyle (1992) attempts to incorporate comparison concerns into standard models of stress and coping and the self-regulation of illness behavior.


The applications attest to the pivotal role of social comparisons in explaining diverse phenomena. They also reiterate a number of theoretical and empirical issues. Future research should examine conditions affecting the motivations that underlie social comparison processes. Such work also would entail the conditions, such as uncertainty, that stimulate comparisons. The establishment of social contexts activating various motivations will allow a clearer assessment of the cognitive processes that influence social comparisons. In turn, this knowledge may enhance understanding of the choice among comparison others and allow an assessment of the extent to which choices vary with nonmotivational factors. Finally, as much of the applied work suggests, additional studies may reveal the range of consequences of social comparisons for individuals, relationships, and groups. Specific theories about identity formation, group decision making, justice, intimate relationships, and health may be "favorites," but their explanatory success depends on everyone's second favorite theory: social comparison.


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Karen A. Hegtvedt

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