Social Comparison Might Not Be As Bad As We’re Told

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By Kristen Pasko, Cole Ainsworth, And Dr. Dani Arigo

“Don’t compare yourself to others” is frequently offered as advice for preventing spikes in anxiety and other negative emotions. This advice can be found on popular websites like Psychology Today, Healthline, and Medium. At face value, it seems like good advice – who wants to feel bad about themselves? But the perspective that “social comparisons are bad, don’t make them” is incomplete, and does not reflect the entire picture of social comparison as a basic human process. Forcing ourselves to avoid making comparisons is nearly impossible and might actually be harmful. Comparisons can also be positive, and some can be useful, even if they don’t make us happy in the moment. In this post, we want to offer another perspective on social comparison, with a special focus on how comparisons can be used to encourage health behaviors. 

What Do We Know about Social Comparison?

Social comparison has been of interest to psychologists for decades. Leon Festinger developed the first formal theory of social comparison in 1954. He proposed that we have a built-in drive to evaluate ourselves, and when objective standards (i.e., hierarchy of positions in a company)  aren’t available, we default to using social standards (other people). Later work showed that social comparison isn’t just a substitute for unavailable objective standards – even when these are available, people often prefer social standards!

Social comparison describes the process of a person noticing and evaluating something about themselves in relation to another person. This could be in domains such as work status, wealth, beliefs, health, or appearance. A person can see themselves as better off than, worse off than, or about the same as another individual in any of these domains. From Festinger’s work and others succeeding him, we know that comparison is one of our fundamental cognitive processes (how we make sense of, store, and apply information about other people and social situations). Making comparisons can help to increase cognitive accessibility of certain information. In other words, it reduces the time it takes to mentally sort and select information when thinking and talking about important topics. 

Key Terms

DIRECTION OF COMPARISON

Upward social comparison = perceiving that another person is doing better than we are in a given domain

  • Example: She is so much more attractive than I am. I really wish I had hair like hers.

Downward social comparison = perceiving that another person is doing worse than we are in a given domain

  • Example: I’m definitely healthier than he is, with all of his health symptoms. 

Lateral social comparison = perceiving that another person is doing about the same as we are in a given domain

  • Example: We’re performing about the same at work. 

COMPARISON TARGET: person that an individual compares themselves to; often similar to the individual making the comparison

Moderate target = selecting a person for comparison who seems “not too far off” from us

  • Example: This person is somewhat similar to me, even if they’re doing a little better/worse.

Extreme target = selecting a person for comparison who seems “pretty far off” from us 

  • Example: That person is nothing like me – they’re doing so much better/worse.

 Of these, upward comparisons have the worst reputation. These are the ones that websites tell us to avoid. But research suggests that upward comparisons (as well as downward and lateral comparisons) can have benefits. 

How Can Each Type of Social Comparison Be Beneficial? 

Let’s examine some examples from scientific literature. Upward comparisons can be useful for self-improvement related to job uncertainty (a stressor that could hinder achieving one’s career goals), as they might promote greater goal engagement. In other words, individuals who made upward comparisons more frequently were more likely to move towards their goals. Downward comparisons can be useful in romantic relationships, as individuals who engaged in more frequent downward comparisons about their relationships (compared to individuals who make lateral comparisons) later reported greater relationship satisfaction. Comparisons are even useful for a variety of populations. For example, they may work differently within the context of chronic illness, though still provide benefit. Specifically, individuals from the general population without chronic illness often prefer to see/hear about others that are doing worse than them (downward social comparison) to feel better about themselves. However, individuals with chronic illness tend to prefer contact with those who are doing about the same of better than them (lateral or upward comparison), as it provides reassurance about their current health or serves a picture of how they might look in the future (i.e., in better health). For example, adolescents with chronic illnesses who made lateral comparisons to other ill peers (vs. upward comparisons to well peers) reported greater feelings of social acceptance, happiness with their physical appearance, and global self-worth (personal value).

How are Social Comparisons and Health Behaviors Related?

Social comparisons may also have benefits for promoting healthy behavior. In general, social connections are increasingly recognized as useful in health behavior interventions. This might look like an intervention delivered on a social media platform to increase healthy eating or physical activity, where people are connected with a buddy or team and they can see each other’s progress (e.g., a leaderboard showing how many steps they took during the week vs. how many steps others took). Out of 3 top social strategies that are used to promote better health behavior (competition, comparison, cooperation), social comparison has been shown as the most effective. According to the authors of this study, the main strengths of social comparison include promotion of “subtle and empowering peer pressure.” Social media platforms have also induced social comparison by connecting people to one another to motivate medication management, allowing the sharing of calorie and nutrient consumption to promote a healthy diet, or ranking group members’ physical activity (i.e., steps) on a leaderboard.

A recent three-part study also showed that, regardless of direction (upward, downward, lateral), people who compared with moderate targets had greater physical activity motivation compared to those who compared with extreme targets (see definitions above). Therefore, if targets were moderate (close in activity engagement to the person making the comparison), physical activity motivation increased, as physical activity appeared more achievable. Conversely, targets that were extreme (farther away in activity engagement from the person making the comparison), physical activity motivation was decreased, as the same outcome appeared less achievable. This study suggests that the direction of comparison may not matter as much as whether our own performance is close to or far away from the performance of our targets.  

Food for Thought

Comparisons are quite natural and occur more often than some people would like to admit. Often they are automatic. Therefore, putting pressure on yourself to avoid making comparisons might be an unrealistic goal. Making comparisons is NOT something individuals need to be ashamed of! So, what are potential ways we can manage comparisons?

Try to be flexible about the way you are thinking about comparisons. Comparisons might provide us with examples of how other people are doing/viewing something, to save up our time and energy for future situations. In other words, they might be protective. You might ask yourself, “how can I use this person as a role model?” or “can I find a better (e.g., more realistic) role model?”. While comparing ourselves to these role models might make us feel a little bad at times, that little bit of negative emotion might motivate us to make some change!*

CHASE Lab’s Recent Work on Social Comparison

  • Methods to Assess Social Comparison Processes within Persons in Daily Life: A Scoping Review
    • What we learned: most available research on social comparison that assessed the same people multiple times were assessing: 1) women, 2) college students, and 3) social comparisons of appearance rather than other domains (i.e., wealth, health). Most studies signaled participants to report on their recent comparisons instead of asking participants to record them as they were happening. There was a lot of variability in the way the comparisons were assessed (i.e., how many times they were prompted per day, how “social comparison” was defined).
    • Future implications: we need to examine social comparisons using repeated assessment in a wider range of individuals, to better understand how the process affects us in daily life. See this article    See our blog post summary
  • Social Comparison Features in Physical Activity Apps: Scoping Meta-review
    • What we learned: social comparison processes were present in 31% of published articles that described behavior change techniques in mobile apps to promote physical activity. Though very few described what aspect of physical activity was compared (steps vs. active minutes). No studies identified social comparison features that were tailored to fit user preferences.
    • Future Implications: articles that describe social comparison features in apps should be more specific (i.e., about what is being compared or how comparison is being induced) and should consider individual differences in preferences and responses to social comparison. See this article   See our blog post summary
  • Daily Relations between Social Perceptions and Physical Activity among College Women
    • What we learned: college women engaged in less physical activity on the days that they reported making (vs. not making) comparisons – except comparisons in the health domain, which were on days with more physical activity (for a subset of women).
    • Future implications: days on which individuals report making comparisons (with exception of health comparisons) might be good days to intervene to prevent reductions in physical activity.  See this article    See our blog post summary

What We Have In the Works

  • Project WHADE – Read about our methods
  • Fitspiration Exposure Study – experimental manipulation of messaging that accompanies fitspiration posts, and its effects on body satisfaction, exercise motivation, and exercise behavior (more on this soon!)

*A little bit of negative emotion can signal to us that we want to make some changes, to avoid feeling this way in the future. But as many articles have pointed out by recommending that we avoid comparisons, we shouldn’t have to feel bad all the time, or even most of the time. If your comparisons are contributing to problems, please don’t hesitate to seek support. Visit https://www.7cups.com/ for free resources.

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