Social Comparison Theory Essay

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Comparisons with other people play a significant role in social life, as they provide meaning and self-relevant knowledge. How people view their own circumstances, abilities, and behaviors varies according to the types of social comparisons they make. Although in his seminal work Leon Festinger (1954) did not offer a precise definition of social comparison, it is generally conceptualized as the process of thinking about the self in relation to other people. Individuals frequently make social comparisons because no objective comparison information is available; however, when privy to both social and objective information, the social variety is often favored, as it is frequently more diagnostic. Comparisons may be with real or imagined others, and do not require personal contact or conscious thought. Although comparison information can be encountered naturally in one’s environment, most research has focused on comparisons that people seek out intentionally.

Various motivations underlie the pursuit of social comparison information. For example, comparisons can provide information for self-evaluative, self-improvement, or self-enhancement purposes. They can also inform future behavior or be driven by a desire to affiliate with or gather information about others. In order to achieve the goal of the comparison, individuals can be selective in their choice of a comparison target and strategic in their interpreting, distorting, or disregarding of comparison information. Additionally, the presence of varying goals may lead to different types of comparisons. For example, cancer patients typically compare their coping and health with those less fortunate (i.e., a downward comparison), satisfying a need for positive self-evaluation. However, patients also seek interactions with patients who are doing better than the self (i.e., an upward comparison), satisfying the need for self-improvement.

Social comparisons evoke a variety of behavioral, cognitive, and affective reactions. Such reactions are largely thought to be brought about by a threat to the self-image, a sense of injustice, or some other uncomfortable state resulting from a comparison. For instance, a worker who learns that he gets paid more than a colleague may justify this inequity by either working harder or by reasoning that his work is more difficult than that of the lower-paid worker. As illustrated by this example, people often can choose between behavioral and cognitive responses. Affective responses have also been intensely studied. In general, a comparison with someone whose abilities, performance, or attributes are superior produces more negative affect and lower self-esteem than does a comparison with someone who is inferior. This general tendency is qualified, however, by a number of caveats, and an individual’s response may be contingent upon such factors as the importance of the comparison domain to one’s self image, the degree of similarity with the comparison other, and the control an individual feels over the comparison domain.

The diversity of motivations, reactions to, and characterizations of social comparison has led researchers to employ a variety of methods in their study of the topic. There are three general methodological approaches to social comparison research (Wood, 1996). The selection approach examines the processes underlying how individuals seek social information, including their selection of comparison other, while the narrative approach concentrates on participants’ descriptions and reports of comparisons made in everyday life. The reaction approach focuses on the impact of provided social information and how the information affects variables such as mood, jealousy, self-esteem, self-evaluation, and performance.


  1. Festinger, L. (1954) A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations (7): 117-40.
  2. Suls, J. & Wheeler, L. (eds.) (2000) Handbook of Social Comparison: Theory and Research. Kluwer/Plenum, New York.
  3. Wood, J. V. (1996) Theory and research concerning social comparisons of  personal   Psychological Bulletin 106 (2): 231-48.

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