Inside our Newest Paper – Methods to Assess Social Comparison Processes within Persons in Daily Life: A Scoping Review

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Have you ever had the experience of comparing yourself to others? For example, learning that someone in your work unit got a raise (typically a positive for them) or got written up (typically a negative for them), and thinking about your situation in comparison to theirs? This experience, called social comparison, is extremely common. It can happen in response to conversations with close others and information we get about other people through social media or TV, or by simply imagining someone in a particular situation. More than sixty years of research on social comparison suggests that this process can make us feel good or bad and that it can affect our self-perceptions and behaviors (for better or worse). 

Our team is particularly interested in understanding how social comparisons can affect health behaviors such as eating and engaging in physical activity. We’ve done a lot of work in this area (see our list of publications) and we have multiple ongoing studies devoted to understanding particular aspects of these associations. A consistent challenge for this research is selecting with tools and methods to use to assess comparison, as these decisions can affect the answers we get. For instance, asking someone how often they make comparisons or how interested they are in making comparisons requires people to consider their thoughts and behaviors over long stretches of time (we’re not good at doing this accurately!) and over different situations (which could affect our responses – yes in some situations, no in others). 

Recently, we’ve been asking questions about the best way to assess social comparison – as in, how to get the most accurate information about how and when comparisons happen and how people respond. To avoid the problems associated with a person indicating how much they make comparisons overall (called the “between person” method), we’ve considered asking the same person to report their comparisons as they happen in daily life, repeating the same assessment for each person multiple times (called the “within-person” method). 

Repeated, within-person assessment should allow us to map how often comparisons happen and any changes in how a given person makes or responds to comparisons with greater accuracy. But because this approach is relatively new, there hasn’t been much work to provide guidance on how to conduct within-person assessments of social comparison or how to report findings from these studies. Our group wanted to meet these needs by giving an overview of existing social comparison studies that use within-person methods and identifying next steps for this type of research. 

To do this, CHASE lab teamed up with members of the ReMind and SHADE labs at Penn State University for a large-scale project. We conducted a systematic scoping review (now published in Frontiers in Psychology), which involves a process of carefully searching for and identifying existing research on a topic and summarizing what this research can tell us, using pre-identified research questions and selection criteria. (Our review questions and criteria were preregistered with the Open Science Framework.) We searched the databases PubMed, PsycInfo, and CINAHL for studies of social comparison that used within-person assessment methods. This resulted in 621 potential articles that we could include, which we evaluated with respect to our inclusion criteria. In the end, we included and reviewed 36 studies; we coded these studies on a range of variables, including how participants recorded their comparisons (via paper vs. technology such as smartphones), how often they were asked to record comparisons (how many times per day), and what other experiences were assessed.

What was it like to work on this project?

“Social comparison is my primary research interest, and a key training goal of my current K23 grant is to learn more about using within-person methods to study it. So working with Dr. Mogle to coordinate a multi-lab review of what we know in this area was a dream come true. Our teams worked really well together, as usual. Most papers don’t have submission deadlines, but this one did [as part of a Frontiers in Psychology special issue], and everyone stepped up to overcome some logistical setbacks and keep us on track to finish and submit on time. It’s exciting to see the final product after months of intense focus to get us here.”

— Dr. Dani Arigo, CHASE Lab, Rowan University

“Working on this review opened my eyes to the extent of differences between study methods, even when the studies have similar goals. I enjoyed working collaboratively with colleagues from another institution, and was impressed by how easily collaboration was. This was mostly due to our lead authors consistent and clear communication to the rest of the team. This was the first paper I have had the opportunity to work on, and the process was extremely rewarding. I’m excited for future work!”

— Laura Travers, M.S., second-year Ph.D. student

“Conducting this review with the CHASE lab was fascinating! My area of expertise is in methodology, and I didn’t know as much about social comparison measurement. There are so many ways researchers are trying to capture this experience in the real world, which all get at different aspects of the experience. We worked together to create a method for coding and summarizing the differences across studies so we could synthesize and make sense of the scope of this literature in the paper. I enjoyed working with the team and together we generated an exciting product; we’re hoping that our conclusions and recommendations will be helpful to other researchers.”

— Dr. Jacquie Mogle, ReMind Lab, Penn State University

What did we find?

  • Most studies assessed only comparisons of appearance comparison and included only college students or young women. 
  • The majority of studies collected information in response to signals (rather than initiated by participants). 
  • Studies meaningfully differed in the number of assessments of comparison per day, the number of days of assessment, how participants recorded comparisons, and even how “comparison” was defined.

From this and other information we summarized, some of our recommendations for future work are:

  • Conducting more work to understand social comparisons that occur in understudied groups, such as men, older adults, people with chronic illnesses, and people who attempt to change their behavior
  • Several aspects of the method should be more clearly spelled out in future publications, including: the rationale for selecting the number of assessment days, total number of assessments, timing of assessments, item wording, specific definition of comparison, and the instructions provided to participants (regarding what “counts” as a comparison and how to recognize one)
  • Published reports should include estimation of within-person fluctuation in the number of and response to comparisons during the study

Next steps

We’re combining what we learned from this review with findings from two studies of midlife women’s physical activity.* This contributed to the design of a within-person study on associations between social comparisons (and other experiences) and physical activity among midlife women (currently underway), which will help us better understand how to deliver physical activity interventions in this population. Stay tuned for updates as we move this work forward!

*See our upcoming post on this paper!

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