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“Am I capable of doing this?”

We question ourselves about our abilities on numerous occasions; Be it in terms of our skills, character, personalities etc. and how do we try to find answers to these questions? The only yardstick by which we measure ourselves is through others.

social comparison theory

This world is where it is primarily because of comparison. As humans, we are always asked not to compare ourselves to others. But how far do we take that piece of advice? If we don’t, why and how do we do comparisons?

What Is Social Comparison Theory?

Social comparison theory is a concept proposed by social psychologist, Leon Festinger in the year 1954. Festinger states that humans consistently seek out accurate evaluations of themselves. They strive to achieve a clear perception of who they are, their competencies and fallacies. (Self-evaluation)

In simple terms, social comparison can be defined as a process of thinking about information about one or more people in relation to the self. This comparison is done to acquire precise knowledge (self-improvement) about various aspects of the self and to work on them and enhance those aspects of the self.

Comparing oneself to others is a socially pervasive phenomenon. This behavior has its own set of outcomes including a person’s self-concept, level of aspiration etc. This is a kind of self-enhancement like an individual holds the belief of being lovable and honest. This thought motivates him to be more preferred among people in the neighborhoods.

Hypotheses Of Social Comparison Theory

Festinger, in his theory of social comparison, has made 8 important hypotheses. These combine to make this theory in its entirety.

1. Humans have the innate tendency to evaluate their opinions and abilities. This hypothesis is the core of this theory. People tend to put themselves against others only to get an accurate understanding of themselves. Lack of this knowledge can sometimes become dangerous or even fatal.

For example, a person learning how to drive a car should understand his level of performance. The lack of this knowledge can lead to serious consequences.

2. When humans can’t evaluate their abilities by themselves, they look out for a yardstick externally; that is by comparing the self to other equally competent counterparts.

For example, if a person wants to know how intelligent they are but are unable to find measures with which they could examine on their own, they look out for other social means where they compare their level of intelligence to others to conclude.

3. The tendency to compare oneself to others will gradually diminish when one’s opinions or abilities of themselves and others differ vastly. Festinger states that people are more likely to compare themselves to the ones who they find are similar. This is because it is much more useful in generating accurate evaluations of them.

For example, Ray wanted to know how good of a swimmer he was. Two people were there at the pool to learn to swim along with Ray. One was a 9-year-old boy who was starting his first day of swimming and the other one is somewhere around his age and joined swimming classes approximately around the time he joined. In this case, who is Ray likely to compare himself with?

4. People have an innate drive to improve their abilities and not their opinions. This is because opinions are only valued in social situations, unlike abilities.

For example, Ian holds an opinion that a particular football team is overhyped as they don’t deliver their game as much and their successes are a result of sheer luck. If he has no one to compare this opinion with, he might as well never attempt to challenge that opinion.

5. Some non-social or personal restraints make improving one’s abilities a difficult or nearly impossible task. However, such restraint isn’t present in the case of opinions.

In the case of opinion, a person is restrained only by limiting beliefs and notions and the need to maintain consistency with other opinions that stop him from changing his opinions. Besides this, no other form of non-social restraint is available whatsoever.

However, if a person wishes to be able to run faster or swim faster, various obstacles must be tackled before making that a reality.

6. The comparison of the self to another person would cease when the person realizes that it would lead to unpleasant consequences. However, this is only so for opinions. If the person understands that the opinion of the other person is far different from his own, then they wouldn’t waste time engaging in that conversation.

For example, when Kevin realized that Oliver’s political opinions are poles apart from his own, he avoided having the heated debate as he knew it might make things bitter between them.

In the case of abilities, people would stop the comparison with others if their ability were far divergent from their own. For example, a budding entrepreneur is less likely to compare his scale of production to that of a well-established business tycoon.

7. When social comparison takes place among a group of people, there must be uniformity in the level of ability shared among the group members. Lack of uniformity makes comparison meaningless.

For example, if a comparative group has been established for musicians, the comparison is only likely to take place among them if all of them hold a comparable level of expertise and years of experience etc. among many other factors.

8. If a person is aware of the difference existing between the self and others, they are less motivated to compare themselves to the other person.

For example, an author who is clearly aware of his own level of expertise in writing and that of an 8-year-old child is least likely to make a comparison between both.

Many decades of research on this topic proves that social comparison is complex, and people play an active role in using comparative information to their advantage.

Models Of Social Comparison

1. Proxy Model:

This model is concerned with the question “Can I do X?” The proxy model anticipates the success of a task that is unfamiliar.

For example, Brian was wondering if he could sign up for the international math Olympiad.

This model states that the success of an unfamiliar task depends on the previous success of the preliminary task. Brian considered participating in the math Olympiad because he has been successful in the past in various inter-school and national math competitions. So, he calculated the likelihood of his success to being moderately high and chose to participate.

2. Triadic Model:

The triadic model proposes that social comparison takes place on account of three important evaluative questions. These questions pertain to current preferences, beliefs and future preferences.

The current preference is the opinion concerning the liking of a person towards an aspect. (Do I like X?). This model states that people with similar preferences and world view are likely to influence the preference evaluation of a person.

For example, Beth is likely to compare her preferences with like-minded friends.

Belief evaluation is done based on the validity of the fact.

For example, are all new mothers’ victims of post-partum depression?

Expert answers are always considered to assess the validity of the information. However, even such a consideration is dependent on whether the expert holds similar religious, social and political beliefs and values. Thus, the model gives value to the role of a similar expert in social comparison.

Future preferences are the opinions and preferences a person would hold about something in the future (Will I like X?). People are likely to compare their future preferences with people who have shared their preferences in the past.

For example, if Kara and Ray liked a similar outfit in the past, Kara is very likely to compare her preferences with that of Ray.

This is a widely utilized marketing strategy called collaborative filtering where your past preferences act as the recommendation for future preferences.

For example, the global online platform Amazon sends recommendations to customers based on their past purchases. If you’ve been getting art supplies over the past few purchases, Amazon is likely to send recommendations about other art accessories that you might need.

Upward And Downward Comparison: Which Leads To Higher Self-Enhancement?

In the 1980s and 1990s researchers found that comparing the self with dissimilar individuals can lead to an enhanced and protected sense of self and thereby satisfies the self-enhancement motive. By dissimilar individuals, it refers to people who are higher and lower in skill set and not someone on par compared to the self.

Will’s downward comparison theory states that people who feel threatened compare themselves to others who are worse off than them rather than with people who are better off.

It also proposes that it enhances the social well-being of the person. In fact, breast cancer patients and threatened people who engage in downward comparison are found to cope better with their terminal illness compared to the ones who don’t.

Many medical researchers find this tendency as a potential scope for an intervention strategy in patients with terminal illnesses and studies of the same have been carried out for nearly a decade.

However, the upward comparison isn’t as aversive as assumed. Studies show that people sometimes compare themselves to those much higher than their level to identify themselves and their skills with them and feel relatable to them.

This notion satisfies the self-improvement motive where a person feels inspired and hopeful about the ones who are well-established.

For example, the legendary football player Cristiano Ronaldo is a perfect example of the proverb “rags to riches”. His difficult life story and his phenomenal success never fail to inspire many aspiring football players and many others.

Lockwood and Kunda, in the year 1997 revealed that upward comparison enhanced self-evaluation of competence and motivation when individuals believed in the possibility of change in their status.

 Upward ComparisonDownward Comparison
Pros1. Increases hopefulness and feelings of inspiration.
2. Helps achieve a feeling of relatability.

3. Inspires self-improvement motive.
1. Boosts self-esteem and a sense of gratitude.
2. Enhances the social well-being of a person.
3. Develops feelings of empathy and pro-social behavior.
Cons1. Triggers feelings of inadequacy or inferiority.

2. Diminishes self-esteem.

3. Creates feelings of being threatened by the success of those who are considered superior.
1. Can lead to one disregarding and belittling the efforts and plight of those worse off.
2. It doesn’t create room for motivation and competitiveness.
3. It causes emotional burnout in the long run although it gives a short-term confidence boost.

How Is Social Comparison Bad?

Social comparison isn’t always the best thing to do. Although it may be a contributor to creating many positive feelings sometimes, the negatives naturally overrun the positives.

Constant comparison of the self against others is like putting one’s self-worth and competency to question. Although it can be done now and then to get an objective picture, in most cases it leaves us more miserable than usual.

In today’s world where people are only showing their best lives online, hiding away their otherwise mundane life, we can’t help but wonder why we don’t have the same kind of cars, clothes, looks, personalities etc. This consequently makes one feel terrible about the place they are in and allows feelings of inferiority and incompetency to wash them all over.

How Do People Compare Their Intelligence With Others?

Mira is a social butterfly. People love her for her liveliness, humor and for making everyone feel at home and comfortable. But she goes home feeling loathed by herself. She sees herself as incompetent because of her perceived dumbness. She thinks she isn’t smart or brainy enough and cannot hold a conversation about things that people around her pull off like a piece of cake.

Like the social comparison of body image and other things, people usually make comparisons on intelligence. “He is more intelligent than I am”. “He knows more than I do”. This goes on to internalizing feelings of inferiority, low self- esteem, lack of confidence etc.

What Mira isn’t aware of is the fact that intelligence isn’t just a one-way road. There are multiple tracks and what she can casually do, others can’t do as easily.

How Can People Avoid/Stop Compare Them With Others?

  • Identify your strengths and skillset.
  • Understand that every journey is different and each of us is uniquely designed.
  • Avoid frequent exposure to places that trigger you to compare yourself to others.
  • Practice gratitude and be mindful of your blessings and accomplishments.
  • Avoid feeling good about yourself by putting others down. Although this may give a constant high, it would leave you drained in the long run.
  • Remember that no one is perfect and we all experience imperfections in one way or another.
  • Work towards the goals you’ve set for yourself and be directed towards that path rather than spending time thinking about the accomplishments of others.
  • Be willing to help others and uplift others as you strive to get better. This eventually attracts more success and satisfaction to you.
  • Become aware of the ill effects of social comparison and work towards your personal growth and goals.
  • Take inspiration from other successes rather than engaging in comparison.

The Role Of Media In Social Comparison

Of the many sources available, media has a major role to play in social comparison. As the world has been taken over by the storm of technology, people are highly engaged in online communication through social media. Although the debate about whether social media is a boon or bane continues, it has opened the stage for intense social comparison among people.

In a study conducted by Vogel and Erin A. Rose et al, it is found that people who used Facebook frequently had poorer self-esteem and this effect was mediated by upward social comparison.

In another study, it was concluded that women experienced a sense of body dissatisfaction when they were shown images of thin idealized media images of models.

Nevertheless, it isn’t an exception among men. When a similar study was conducted among men where they were shown images that depict status and wealth reported lower levels of self-esteem and body esteem.

How Do Marketing Agencies Use This Theory To Their Advantage?

The ultimate goal of marketers is to sell the product they produce. To do that, people should hold a positive attitude about the product in the first place, which would later influence the consumers to develop a sense of need for the product and thereby alluring them to get the product that they wouldn’t otherwise mind living without. To fulfil this marketing gimmick, they use the weapon of comparison.

For example, a few years back only very few people were aware of ring lights that are used for good lighting when taking photos. However, today almost anyone with a phone and camera holds a ring light to capture good photos and videos and this is an apparent effect of social comparison.

When advertisers show Rihanna looking flawless and glowing because of using cosmetic products from her luxury brand “Fenty”, an average social media user is likely to compare her skin to the celebrity and experience a dip in their self-esteem. This person may not realize that behind the screen there is a whole crew working on making Rihanna look so perfect and unblemished.

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