SPOTLIGHT ON: SOCIAL COMPARISON & BODY IMAGE

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Guest post by Sara Chapin, junior Neuroscience major (@rahrahchapinn)

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I like to think that I don’t compare myself to other people that much. I am a relatively independent person, so I often do not think about whether I assess how I am doing relative to other people. However, after spending a year discussing social comparison theory in the Clinical Health Psychology lab (@UofSHealthPsych), I catch myself making comparisons a lot of the time.

Whether it’s after a difficult test (“Well, I think I did better than the majority of the class”) or while watching TV (“I wish I was as put together as that character!”), I spend a decent amount of time making comparisons. This is not to say that making social comparisons is a bad thing. In fact, according to Leon Festinger, all people are driven to make comparisons to others for the purpose of self-evaluation. Through social comparisons, we learn how we are doing with respect to the rest of the world. The knowledge gained from making social comparisons can have both positive and negative consequences; it can motivate us to do better or decrease our satisfaction with certain aspects of ourselves.

Social Comparison and Body Image

People can (and often do) make social comparisons with respect to physical appearance. We often hear about how people, especially women, compare their bodies to those of celebrities and models. A recent article published in the Huffington Post cited a study that found a correlation between Facebook use and tendency to compare oneself to peers, as well as view one’s body as an object. For those who study social comparison theory, what gets a lot of research attention is this relationship between social comparison and body image. According to the theory, people make both upward and downward social comparisons. When we make a downward comparison, we compare ourselves to someone who we perceive as doing worse than ourselves. This can be when we compare ourselves to a person we say that we are prettier or thinner than. Meanwhile, when we make an upward comparison, we compare ourselves to someone that we perceive as better than ourselves. This is the type of comparison we make when we compare ourselves to the Victoria Secret Angels, and this type of comparison has been noted as particularly problematic.

For example, if I make an upward comparison to a model, it highlights the difference between our appearances, and I see myself as not very attractive. (Or at least, less attractive than this person.) For many people, particularly women, this type of comparison leads to increased body dissatisfaction. Over time, feeling dissatisfied with my appearance after upward comparisons could motivate me to make dramatic changes – like restricting what I eat so that I’ll lose weight. In fact, Dr. Arigo has demonstrated that upward appearance comparison represents a risk factor for eating pathology. In this way, the relationship between social comparison and eating behavior makes social comparison an important topic in Health Psychology.

Senior Honors Thesis

After a semester’s fill of background on social comparison theory and its relationship to body image and dissatisfaction, I am ready to begin conducting research for my senior’s Honors thesis. So what exactly do I plan to research?

The most frequently used measure of general tendency to make social comparisons is the Iowa-Netherlands Comparison Orientation measure (INCOM). This questionnaire assesses an individual’s social comparison orientation, or how much and in what direction (i.e. upward or downward) a person thinks they engage in social comparison. In a previous study, Dr. Arigo modified the INCOM to include a body-focused social comparison scale. But we don’t have any information about how well these questionnaires relate to what people actually do. As many health behavior interventions are guided by psychological theories and the self-reported psychological constructs that comprise them, understanding how self-reported behaviors reflect actual behavior is crucial.

My research project involves comparing these self-reported measures to a behavioral demonstration of social comparison. The behavioral demonstration we will use is a writing task; more specifically, an expressive writing task focused on body image.  By analyzing writing samples on a topic where social comparison is highly relevant (body image), we can make a behavioral determination of a person’s social comparison orientation.

Throughout my senior year, I will explore whether self-perceptions about social comparison behavior align with actual behavior in a writing task. This research has exciting implications for determining whether the modified INCOM can be useful for predicting behavior. Ultimately, the research that I, along with the rest of the lab and Dr. Arigo, will conduct this year can be of use in informing disordered eating interventions. This is one of many ways the work being done in the Clinical Health Psychology lab at The University of Scranton could help promote healthy eating behaviors and prevent future health problems.

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