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The central idea of social comparison theory is that individuals often judge 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.
The theory has subsequently expanded to include additional motives and targets for comparison. Those seeking self-enhancement may choose downward comparison (i.e., contrast themselves to those doing less well on a relevant dimension) in order to feel relatively successful and may avoid ego-threatening upward comparisons with those doing better than them. However, those desiring self-improvement or inspiration may choose upward comparison with those performing brilliantly, to provide hope for the possible future, information about how to perform similarly, and motivation to work hard.
More recently, researchers have argued that comparison choices and outcomes may be even more complicated. For example, individuals seeking reassurance and self-enhancement may avoid 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. In a critique of the theory, Kruglanski and Mayseless (1990) noted the difficulty of predicting who would be a relevant or similar target for comparison, even when an individual’s motives are given.
Although much social comparison research has examined the above contrast effects, other work has focused on assimilation. At times, individuals may focus on, and overestimate, the similarities between themselves and the target, rather than focusing on the differences. Assimilation has been observed when individuals share common attributes or group membership with the comparison target, and when they are very confident and so do not tend to engage in explicit self-evaluations. Contrast effects have been observed when individuals are less confident of their self-image and more interested in self-evaluation. For example, studies of media use and eating disorders find both assimilation (thin women feeling good after exposure to thin, attractive models) and contrast (e.g., other women feeling worse after seeing images of thin, attractive models).
- Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7, 117–140.
- Kruglanski, A. W. & Mayseless, O. (1990). Classic and current social comparison research: Expanding the perspective. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 195–208.