Summary and Keywords
Social comparison activity is one of the most important spheres of human functioning; it is necessary for appraising where one stands within his or her community and for establishing viable routes for connecting with others. Social comparison is thus a critical psychological phenomenon essential to understanding both social behavior and formation of identity. To this end, individuals look to similar others to evaluate their own abilities and opinions, look to those better than themselves for inspiration and guidance, and evaluate others depending on similarities and distinctions with the self. In addition, they evaluate their own position in life with reference to other’s positions, look to others for information about social norms and for clues about how to behave, and experience feelings toward others based on implications of mutual differences for their relationship. This renders the nature of social comparisons complex; they take horizontal forms that focus on connections or distinction, as well as vertical forms that focus on superiority or inferiority. Moreover, they may be experienced through interaction, subjectively constructed in one’s mind, or deliberately orchestrated in order to impact others.
Complexities of social comparison activity are commensurate with multiple functions that they serve. First, people compare with others in order to gain self-knowledge and reduce uncertainty. Comparisons that fulfill this function typically occur with similar others, are biased toward comparing with those slightly better off, and are sensitive to diagnosticity that information about others carries for oneself. Second, people compare with others in order to self-enhance and protect well-being. Comparisons that fulfill this function often involve contrasting oneself from those worse off, although they can also involve perceiving similarities with superior others, especially when these are role models or close others. Third, people compare in order to self-improve, namely, boost their skills and abilities. Such comparisons typically occur with others that are better, yet similar in relevant attributes, and in domains that leave room for personal progress. Fourth and final, people compare in order to connect socially with others. Such comparisons occur through regular social interaction as individuals emphasize mutual similarities, through creation of comparisons to protect or embolden others, and through selection of social identities that maximize a sense of group belonging.
Social comparison activity is one of the most important spheres of human functioning. Perhaps the first person to formally recognize this was Aristotle (see Suls & Wheeler, 2000), but the relevance of social comparison for social life received more critical attention from 19th-century thinkers such as James (1890), Cooley (1902), and Mead (1934). The centrality of comparison for human activity cannot be overstated—the process of social comparison most likely has an evolutionary basis that stems from the need to assess one’s power and strength relative to that of one’s competitors. As P. Gilbert, Price, and Allan (1995) noted, social comparison is phylogenetically very old, biologically powerful, and recognizable in many species. Moreover, the rise of technological development and role specialization meant that assessing domains in which one could specialize to enhance one’s status and reproductive opportunities was even more important (Beach & Tesser, 2000). Additionally, the rising complexity of social life increasingly required mutual affiliation and coordination. All of these functions require social comparison as a necessary tool; only by evaluating similarities and differences from others can individuals appraise their standing in society, establish appropriate bonds with others, and develop a sense of identity (Krizan & Gibbons, 2014). As a result, social comparison is a critical psychological phenomenon essential to understanding both social behavior and formation of identity.
These discoveries have positioned social comparison as a key psychological process in self-evaluation and the regulation of social behavior. Individuals look to similar others to evaluate their abilities and opinions (Goethals & Darley, 1977; Martin, 2000), look to those better than them for inspiration and guidance (Collins, 1996; Lockwood & Kunda, 1997), and evaluate others depending on their similarities and distinctions with the self (Dunning, 2000; Fiske, 2011). In addition, they evaluate their own position in life with reference to other’s positions (Crosby, 1976; Wills, 1981), look to others for information about social norms and for clues about how to behave (Cialdini, Kallgren, & Reno, 1991), and experience feelings toward others based on implications of mutual differences for their relationship (Tesser, 1988). These insights reveal just how critically important other individuals are for people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Moreover, they suggest that the way people see ourselves, evaluate our lot in life, and decide which paths to pursue, all depend on how they see and react to others. Put simply, it all depends on how they compare with other people and social groups. In the remainder of the article, history of social comparison theory and research is first briefly reviewed, with emphasis on key advancements and paradigm shifts. Second, existing scientific knowledge about social comparison is reviewed, organized around four distinct functions that social comparisons serve.
A Brief History of Modern Social Comparison Theory and Research
Despite the clear importance of social comparisons for human life, it was only in 1954 that a psychologist outlined a formal theory of social comparison processes. Using his work on informal social communication as a launching pad, Leon Festinger (1954) proposed that humans rely on social comparison to evaluate their opinions and abilities when objective standards are not available. The critical motivator that he proposed for comparison activity was “uncertainty reduction,” and as such social comparison was thought to be driven by people’s need to accurately self-evaluate. Additionally, he suggested that individuals are most likely to compare themselves to similar others, because comparing with individuals who are too different may not be that useful for assessing where one stands (Festinger, 1954). Finally, Festinger also speculated on consequences of social comparisons, suggesting there is a general pressure toward uniformity (i.e., similarity among group members), especially regarding opinions. In short, Festinger (1954) set the stage for psychological investigations of social comparison, stressing that comparing with others helps individuals know themselves, as well as facilitates connecting with others.
Although Festinger has focused on when and why people actively make comparisons with others, comparisons are often forced upon individuals (e.g., Brickman & Bulman, 1977; Gilbert, Giesler, & Morris, 1995). The realization that individuals usually have a vested interest in the outcome of the comparison proved to be very influential for further developments of social comparison theory (e.g., Buunk & Ybema, 1997; Suls & Wheeler, 2000). In his now classic paper, Wills (1981; see also Hakmiller, 1966) proposed that people can increase their sense of competency and well-being by comparing with those less fortunate, and that this strategy is especially likely among those under threat and those with lower self-esteem. Significant flexibility was accorded in how one might orchestrate such “downward” comparisons; they could even be cognitively constructed (i.e., imagined) in a manner that promotes well-being without any actual contact with others (e.g., Goethals, 1986; Wood, Taylor, & Lichtman, 1985). These developments attested to a newly recognized force, one that extends beyond self-knowledge, thought to drive social comparison—namely, self-enhancement through comparing with those worse off (see Alicke, 1985; Marks, 1984; Tesser, 1988).
The notion that social comparison may have multiple “masters” drove further identification of additional motives driving comparison activity, such as self-improvement and social connection (Helgeson & Mickelson, 1995). As discussed in the section “Functions of Social Comparison,” there is extensive research indicating that social comparison fulfills a variety of functions (see Helgeson & Mickelson, 1995; Krizan & Gibbons, 2014, for reviews). Identifying and examining these different functions of social comparison has progressed mainly through identifying who people compare with (i.e., comparison choices) and what the outcomes of these comparisons mean for individuals’ emotions, beliefs, and behavior (i.e., comparison consequences). The remainder of this first section briefly reviews how the historical foci on these issues shaped social comparison scholarship, including important advances in social cognition. The second major section then returns to the functions of social comparison, organizing the scientific knowledge on social comparison around distinct functions served by social comparison phenomena.
Targets and Consequences of Social Comparisons
Identifying which comparison “targets” people choose provided further critical insights into both the consequences of social comparisons and functions that these comparisons serve. Whereas early work focused on comparisons with others generally similar (or slightly better) on attributes relevant to abilities or opinions being evaluated (e.g., an athlete will compare his or her performance with other athletes, not engineers; Festinger, 1954; Wheeler et al., 1969), subsequent developments identified great flexibility in choice and construal of comparison targets. Accordingly, Wills (1981) suggested that individuals under threat may compare with those worse off in order to boost their self-esteem, while Brickman and Bulman (1977) suggested people may actually avoid comparisons with those better off given such contrasts can create feelings of envy and resentment. These developments lead to a growing recognition that people may both engage in downward comparisons with those worse off and upward comparisons with those slightly better than the self. Although thinking of others worse off may boost self-evaluations, exposure to those better off may provide useful information about doing better (Aspinwall & Taylor, 1993; Thronton & Arrowood, 1966). In short, on the one hand, these developments suggested that in contexts of uncertainty where seeking information about the self is important, people tend to compare with those similar and/or slightly better off. On the other hand, in contexts of threat where avoiding negative feelings is important, people tend to compare with those worse off (Crocker, Thompson, McGraw, & Ingerman, 1987; Taylor & Lobel, 1989).
These developments suggested that the direction of comparison is closely tied to its consequences (and thus its purpose), but subsequent findings revealed an even more complex picture of social comparison activity. In their seminal paper identifying that each direction of comparison has its “ups and downs,” Buunk, Collins, Taylor, Van Yperen, and Dakof (1990) argued that both upward and downward comparisons have both positive and negative aspects to them. Whereas comparing with those better off may be informative or encouraging, it may also be dispiriting and threatening (Brickman & Bulman, 1977; Gibbons & Gerrard, 1989; Smith & Insko, 1987). Similarly, although comparisons with those worse off may cast one’s own standing in a positive light, they may also suggest one will meet a similar undesired fate, especially when similar or emotionally close to the target individual (Tesser, 1988; Wood et al., 1985). What consequences, if any, comparison will have on an individual is known to depend on a multitude of factors. These include, but are not limited to, similarity of the comparison other (e.g., Goethals & Darley, 1977; Martin, Suls, & Wheeler, 2002; Mussweiler, 2001), perceived mutability/controllability of the attribute under comparison (e.g., Buunk & Ybema, 1997; Lockwood & Kunda, 2000), personal relevance of the comparison dimension (e.g., Tesser, 1988), valence of the self-concept activated during comparison (e.g., Schwinghammer, Stapel, & Blanton, 2006), cognitive resources available during the comparison (e.g., Alicke et al., 1995; Gilbert et al., 1995), and the mindset brought to bear on the comparison (e.g., Gardner, Gabriel, & Hochschild, 2002; Stapel & Koomen, 2001a).
Although research on social comparison has initially focused on how people seek out real information about comparison others or react to actual other individuals, people may also construe social comparisons “in the head” alongside absence of any actual individuals to compare with (Goethals, 1986; Suls, 1986; Wood, 1989). On one hand, to the extent that such comparisons involve important individuals from one’s reference groups, they are key means toward identifying and aligning with social norms (Forsyth, 2000; Hyman, 1960). On the other hand, given the weak impact of reality constraints on comparisons one can generate intrapsychically, such comparisons often serve the need for self-enhancement (Goethals, Messick, & Allison, 1991). For example, people often perceive their strengths to be unique, but their weaknesses to be common (Klein & Kunda, 1993; Marks, 1984). Similarly, most people think of themselves as better than average on desirable personality and ability attributes (Alicke, 1985; Dunning, Meyerowitz, & Holzman, 1989; Weinstein, 1980). These developments reinforced that people construe generalized comparisons with broad social groups (e.g., one’s peers), as well as personalized comparisons with specific other individuals (e.g., my friend; Locke, 2007).
This brief review of social comparison research over the last half of the 20th century reveals that researchers have increasingly acknowledged complexities surrounding social comparison behavior. Early emphases on particular directions and outcomes of comparison gave way to the recognition that comparisons are multifaceted and yield varied consequences for the comparer. Note that most focus has been on understanding the nature of vertical comparisons, namely, contrasting one’s standing in a domain with others better off (i.e., upward comparisons) or worse off (i.e., downward comparisons), along with the consequences of such contrasts (Locke, 2003). Nevertheless, the work on the importance of similarity and “related attributes” in choice of comparison targets reveals important lateral (horizontal) aspects of comparisons that involve general considerations of similarity and dissimilarity. Connective horizontal comparisons draw attention to similarity with others, whereas contrastive horizontal comparisons draw attention to global distinctions from others (Locke, 2003). These horizontal comparisons define the universe of individuals one views as relevant for self-evaluation and increase the relevance of comparisons for self-evaluation (Goethals & Darley, 1977; Lockwood & Pinkus, 2014). Moreover, connective comparisons typically lead to impressions of further similarity with the comparison targets, often resulting in assimilation of one’s self-view with the view of the target (Brown, Novick, Lord, & Richards, 1992; Gardner, Gabriel, & Hochschild, 2002; Mussweiler, 2003).
Moreover, vertical comparisons (“Am I better or worse off?”) that have direct consequences on emotion and self-evaluation are often informed by the horizontal comparisons (“Are we generally similar?”). For example, upward comparisons with (horizontally) close others may help one “bask in their reflected glory” or find the same virtues in oneself, rather than feel inferior or worse off (McFarland, Buehler, & Mackay, 2001; Tesser, 1988). For example, performing worse than one’s business partner may still have a positive impact on the individuals’ self-evaluation to the extent that the partner’s performance speaks well to the competency of the entire team. Studies of real-life comparison activity confirm the impressive variety of social comparisons people make; in his studies of naturalistic social comparisons, Locke (2003) identified approximately 25% were upward, 25% were downward, 30% were contrastive, and 20% were connective. These findings speak to the diversity of social comparison activity and the importance of how people evaluate both broad dis/similarity with others, as well as concrete differences on specific dimensions spanning abilities, opinions, and personality traits.
Social Cognition in Social Comparison
In order to integrate the scientific understanding of how varied forms of comparison connect to their consequences, researchers in the 21st century have increasingly relied on advances from social cognition, a perspective that emphasizes the role of cognitive structures (i.e., schemas, attitudes) and accessibility of information in shaping subjective experience, emotion, and behavior (Fiske & Neuberg, 1990; Higgins, 1989; Trope & Liberman, 1996). From this perspective, the accessibility of information used to evaluate a social comparison target plays a critical role in how comparisons are carried out and what consequences they have on self-evaluations (Mussweiler, 2003). Moreover, which information is accessible and ultimately shapes the comparison will depend on whether judges engage in appraisals of similarity or dissimilarity (Strack & Mussweiler, 1997). Critically, regardless of which possibility is examined, judges are likely to generate evidence consistent with their hypothesis; searching for similarities is more likely to yield accessible information that one is similar to the target, while searching for dissimilarities is more likely to yield accessible information that one is different than the target (Klayman & Ha, 1987; Mussweiler & Bodenhausen, 2002). As a result, self-evaluations will be assimilated toward the targets of comparison when accessible information suggests similarity on the comparison dimension (e.g., you will see yourself more similar to the person on a given dimension), whereas self-evaluations will be contrasted away from the standard when information suggests dissimilarity (e.g., you will see yourself as more different than the person on that dimension) (Mussweiler, 2003).
This perspective has helped illuminate the mechanisms underlying social comparison effects, as well help account for their diversity. Classic social comparison proposals emphasized the role of assessing general similarity in selection of relevant comparison targets (e.g., Goethals & Darley, 1977). Accordingly, evidence indeed indicates that judges initially engage in a holistic, preliminary assessment of similarities with a target (e.g., “are we of a like kind”) that is influenced by the most salient features such as social category membership and extremity (Chapman & Johnson, 1999; Gentner & Markman, 1994; Mussweiler, 2003). Additionally, seeing oneself as ranking closer to someone better on a comparison dimension (i.e., upward assimilation) seems to be driven by a preliminary assessment of similarity that yields evidence consistent that one is similarly high on the same dimension (Lockwood & Kunda, 1997; Mussweiler & Bodenhausen, 2002). This helps explain why factors such as increased closeness with the comparison target (e.g., Pelham & Wachsmuth, 1995; Tesser, 1988), high controllability over attributes under comparison (Buunk & Ybema, 1997; Lockwood & Kunda, 2000), and a more connective mindset during comparison (Gardner, Gabriel, & Hochschild, 2002; Stapel & Koomen, 2001b) lead to upward assimilation; they all increase accessibility of information suggesting one is or can become similar to the comparison target on that dimension. Conversely, this perspective also helps explain why comparing with clearly inferior or superior individuals tends to yield contrast effects; people are more likely to generate information indicating dissimilarity when comparing with individuals with extreme standing on the dimension of the comparison or from a fundamentally different category (Brewer & Weber, 1994; Herr, 1986; Morse & Gergen, 1970; Strack & Mussweiler, 1997). For example, a female accountant is likely to come away with an impression she is a much worse swimmer than the Olympian Michael Phelps given his extreme standing on the comparison dimension (i.e., arguably the best swimmer of all time), or with an impression that their differences are so fundamental (i.e., he is a male professional athlete and she is not) making the comparison almost irrelevant.
More recent developments in social comparison research attempt to integrate these social cognitive insights with affective and motivational considerations (Locke, 2014; Lockwood & Pinkus, 2014). For example, individuals highly motivated to accomplish a task may not consider others as comparison targets at all, but rather as sources of useful information (Butler, 1992; Darnon, Muller, Schrager, Pannuzzo, & Butera, 2006). To take another example, failing to reach a comparison standard may induce ruminative thoughts that then distract attention and impair future performance relevant to the domain (Muller & Butera, 2007). In other cases, such threatening comparisons can motivate additional effort to ameliorate the comparative difference (Johnson, 2012). Finally, distinct effects of social comparisons on one’s emotions and self-evaluative beliefs can occur in parallel, so there are possibilities for simultaneous contrast and assimilation on various aspects that are being compared (Collins, 1996; Mussweiler, 2003; Taylor & Lobel, 1989). In sum, the social cognitive revolution continues to play a critical role in informing the scientific understanding of social comparison processes and consequences as it has provided a common framework to connect cognitive, emotional, and conative aspects of social comparison.
The Functions of Social Comparisons
This historical review reveals that comparison research has increasingly recognized that social comparisons have complex causes and consequences, suggesting that they serve multiple purposes. In an illustrative study by Helgeson and Mickelson (1995), the researchers asked participants to indicate reasons they had for comparing with others following hypothetical threats, in addition to examining responses following actual threats to self-worth. Their results indicated that comparisons in such threatening situations are driven by multiple motives, including those for self-evaluation, common bond, self-improvement, self-enhancement, altruism, and self-destruction. In short, there is extensive research indicating that people actively use social comparison for a variety of personal and social goals (Krizan & Gibbons, 2014; Suls & Wheeler, 2000). The current knowledge on the nature and consequences of social comparison is summarized by reviewing four functions that have been identified as common and important for social comparison behavior: self-knowledge, self-enhancement, self-improvement, and social connection. Underscoring these functions of social comparison helps illuminate the varied causes and consequences of social comparison.
Festinger’s (1954) original formulation focused on the need to accurately appraise one’s abilities and opinions. Early research supported the notion that self-knowledge (or self-understanding) was one key motive underlying comparisons with others. For example, individuals feeling uncertain about their feelings and opinions choose to affiliate with others in order to resolve that uncertainty, whereas the absence of comparison others conversely leads to unstable self-evaluations (Gordon, 1966; Kulik & Mahler, 1989; Radloff, 1966; Schacter, 1959). Moreover, early evidence indicated that individuals who are similar on “related attributes” relevant to the comparison dimension are the most diagnostic comparison referents (Goethals & Darley, 1977; Wheeler & Zuckerman, 1977). For example, when evaluating one’s piano-playing ability, people are likely to consider those who have a similar background on relevant factors such as talent, practice, and age, namely, factors that clearly contribute to one’s playing skill. Much research supports the notion that similar others are preferred targets of social comparisons when skills and abilities are at issue (Gastorf & Suls, 1978; Wheeler & Koestner, 1984), and that people pay special attention to stable rather than situational factors when evaluating abilities (Smith & Arnkelsson, 2000).
What role comparison targets play in individuals’ needs to appraise their ability to perform a novel and consequential task (i.e., develop self-knowledge about their ability) is elegantly summarized in the Proxy Model of Social Comparison (Wheeler, Martin, & Suls, 1997). According to this model, when evaluating their abilities, individuals are the most interested in comparing with an individual (i.e., a proxy) who exerted maximum effort while performing similarly on a prior ability-relevant task (Martin, 2000; Wheeler et al., 1997). In such cases one can reasonably infer that he or she will perform similarly as a proxy on a future task relevant to the same ability; only when this prior performance information is not available, or it’s unclear whether the proxy’s performance was diagnostic of their ability (i.e., occurred without maximum effort), should individuals base their assessments on relevant background attributes. In accord with this proposal, participants’ predictions about their grip strength were only informed about the hand strength of the proxy when past performance information was either unavailable or undiagnostic (i.e., effort invested was unclear, Martin, Suls, & Wheeler, 2002). Critically, these patterns occurred regardless of monetary incentives for accurate prediction, suggesting that people are generally motivated to develop accurate beliefs about their abilities (Martin et al., 2002, Studies 1 and 2). Note that the high motivation to develop accurate self-knowledge through social comparison is dependent on numerous qualifying factors, including uncertainty about oneself or the environment (Buunk, Zurriaga, Gonzalez-Roma, & Subirats, 2003; Gibbons & Buunk, 1999; Pelham & Wachsmuth, 1995) and a sense of dependence on others (Johnson & Lammers, 2012). People also learn about their own preferences and beliefs via social comparison in a similar fashion. Specifically, they tend to choose generally similar others in order to assess the appropriateness of their preferences (e.g., “Do or should I like X”), whereas they choose superior others that share basic common values (similar experts) in order to assess the veracity of their beliefs (e.g., “Is X true”) (Suls, Martin, & Wheeler, 2000).
Although self-knowledge frequently depends on comparisons with specific others, it also involves comparisons within and across social groups. According to the Uncertainty-Identity Theory, feelings of uncertainty regarding one’s appropriate behavior in social situations motivate seeking of a relevant group identity, which can then provide a consensually valid prototype for one’s behavior (Hogg, 2000, 2007). For example, people are especially likely to identify with minimal/arbitrary groups and engage in ingroup favoritism under conditions of subjective uncertainty (Grieve & Hogg, 1999). They will even identify with low-status groups when uncertainty is severe enough (Reid & Hogg, 2005) and will perceive greater polarization between their own and others’ political parties when uncertain about relevant positions (Sherman, Hogg, & Maitner, 2009; see Hogg & Gaffney, 2014, for review). Taken together, these findings attest that self-understanding is a powerful force underlying social comparisons, be they at the level of the individual or the group.
Although seeking self-knowledge is an indispensable function of social comparison activity, it’s not the only one. In a classic study by Hakmiller (1966), after receiving feedback about their performance on a test, individuals who believed the test indicated they possessed an undesirable personality quality (i.e., “hostility toward one’s parents”) compared mostly with those inferior to them. Inspired by these findings, Wills (1981) proposed that people’s comparison activity is often motivated by feeling good about themselves and their competencies; he proposed that individuals will tend to compare with those worse off than themselves in order to boost their well-being, especially when they experience threat or low self-esteem. In this vein, cancer patients undergoing treatment were often found to compare with patients that were worse off, suggesting these comparisons help patients feel better about their difficult condition (Wood, Taylor, & Lichtman, 1985). In fact, various forms of stress often motivate downward comparisons, be they active (effortful seeking of information about others) or passive (mere thoughts of others), as reflected in research examining individuals coping with eating disorders and depression (e.g., Affleck & Tennen, 1991; Gibbons, 1986; Wood et al., 1985). This research gave rise to the notion that self-enhancement is a powerful driver of social comparisons; people often compare with others in order to buttress (or restore) their sense of competence and self-worth.
In accord with this proposal, people routinely perceive themselves as better than their peers on a variety of personal attributes and abilities (Alicke, Klotz, Breitenbecher, Yurak, & Vredenburg, 1995; Weinstein, 1980). For example, people believe they are smarter, more cooperative, and better drivers than their peers (Dunning et al., 1989; Svenson, 1981). Although perceptions of one’s relative superiority on personal attributes partially arise from non-motivated factors involved in social judgments (e.g., heightened accessibility of self-relevant information, Krizan & Suls, 2009), evidence has directly implicated seeing oneself as “better than average” with means of restoring low feelings of self-worth following threat (Brown, 2012; Sedikides, Gaertner, & Toguchi, 2003; Taylor & Brown, 1988; Zuckerman & O’Loughlin, 2006). In addition, the evidence that people envy, resent, and derogate superior others is also consistent with a self-enhancement function, given that focus on such individuals is often damaging to one’s self-esteem (Smith & Insko, 1987; see Krizan & Smith, 2014, for a review). Whether self-enhancement via social comparison is culturally universal is not yet clear; there are ongoing debates about whether East Asians, and those from collectivistic cultures more generally, exhibit self-criticism or self-enhancement (Heine & Hamamura, 2007; Kurman, 2003; Sedikides et al., 2003).
As was the case for seeking self-knowledge, self-enhancement needs often involve comparing at the level of the group as well as the individual. Extensive research on how people engage with their social identities suggest that people maintain a positive sense of self by elevating their own groups over other groups, be they arbitrary groups created within the laboratory or long-standing social groups based on meaningful attributes such as race and ethnicity (Abrams & Hogg, 1988; Rubin & Hewstone, 1998; Tajfel, 1978). This is evident in allocating more goods to one’s ingroup and in various forms of motivated prejudice against outgroups (Fein & Spencer, 1997; Oakes & Turner, 1980). Finally, people may be especially likely to identify with “superstars” from their own social groups when these afford a sense of superiority over other groups (Blanton, Burkley, & Burkley, 2014).
Furthermore, although most cases of self-enhancement via social comparison involve contrasting oneself with those worse off, they may also involve a sense of similarity with those better off. One way to self-enhance is to identify with groups or individuals who are superior in some way (Cialdini et al., 1976; Lockwood & Kunda, 1997). According to the Self-Evaluation Maintenance Model of social comparison (Tesser, 1988; Tesser & Beach, 2000), individuals are motivated by self-enhancement and this motivation drives either flattering comparison with inferior others or positive reflections from superior others. Moreover, the consequences, and as a result the motives for comparison, will depend on the relevance of the comparison domain for one’s self-esteem (i.e., how important is it) as well as the closeness to the comparison individual (i.e., how intimate is the bond). On one hand, self-enhancement occurs via downward comparisons mostly on important dimensions with others that are not close; to this end, individuals are more motivated to appear superior to a stranger than to a friend on an important, rather than unimportant, performance domain (Tesser & Smith, 1980). On the other hand, self-enhancement occurs via upward comparisons mostly on unimportant dimensions with others that are very close; to this end, individuals easily accept being inferior to a close other on (to themselves) relatively unimportant dimensions, as it allows them to bask in reflected glory of another’s successes (Beach et al., 1998). Romantic relationships seem to provide important opportunities for self-enhancing by upward assimilation toward a partner’s standing given close emotional ties, the shared nature of successes, and opportunities to experience vicarious pride (Lockwood & Pinkus, 2014). In sum, self-enhancement is a powerful motive underlying social comparisons; although it is often satisfied by contrasting oneself from those worse off, it may also be satisfied by viewing oneself similar to successful or close others, be they individuals or groups.
Feeling good about themselves and their abilities may be a powerful motivator of people’s comparison activity, but so is the need to actually be better. Social learning theories long emphasized that individuals seek out and respond to models from which they can learn important skills (Bandura, 1971). In essence, these views suggest that people may compare with others in order to learn new skills and improve their performance (Lockwood, Jordan, & Kunda, 2002; Sedikides & Hepper, 2009). For example, professional bridge players preferred to compare with other slightly better players, which is logical if one is trying to improve their bridge-playing ability (Nosanchuk & Erickson, 1985). Even anecdotal experiences reveal that individuals often seek out even far-superior role models when heavily motivated to learn new skills or improve.
Under what conditions does social comparison best serve the need to self-improve? According to Upward Assimilation Theory (Collins, 1996), individuals’ self-evaluations will be contrasted upward toward a comparison target when there is high expected similarity on the comparison dimension. Such similarity may often be irrelevant to the comparison dimension itself; for example, comparing with more attractive others who share the same birthday can increase ratings of one’s own attractiveness (Brown, Novick, Lord, & Richards, 1992). More frequently, individuals may see themselves as similar to the better-off person because they share background attributes, skills, or opportunities to achieve a similar standing. Such a scenario is common among comparisons within romantic relationships where individuals perceive similar values, expect to experience similar environments in their future, and even perceive an overlapping sense of identity (Lockwood & Pinkus, 2014). For example, individuals who performed significantly worse than their partner nevertheless received a boost in their self-esteem when they were very close with their partner (Lockwood, Dolderman, Sadler, & Gerchak, 2004). Note that such comparison patterns may also reflect other functions such as self-enhancement (via one’s partner) or social connection (by feeling closer to one’s partner).
Other evidence more clearly implicates the self-improvement motive in social comparisons. For example, in one study exposure to other “star students” lead to a boost in self-worth and inspiration when the success of these students was seen as achievable due to time to develop one’s skills, or due to the sense that one’s skill can be improved; when time had run out or change was not possible, participants felt dispirited (Lockwood & Kunda, 2000). Similarly, individuals who are coping with serious health conditions (e.g., cancer, heart disease) and are motivated to improve their state frequently compare with those faring better (Buunk, 1995; Taylor & Lobel, 1989). Finally, motivation for self-improvement via social comparison may especially inform comparison choices among those from collectivistic cultures where learning is prized over self-esteem; for example, Asian Canadians were more likely than their European counterparts to seek upward social comparisons after failure (White & Lehman, 2005). These cases underscore that social comparison is one major avenue that facilitates self-improvement (Sedikides & Hepper, 2009).
The functions considered thus far reveal that comparison research has traditionally focused on functions that comparisons serve for the individual and their sense of self. However, social comparisons are tools that are just as important to the functioning of dyads, groups, and societies as they are to the functioning of individuals. As many great social thinkers of the 20th century have recognized, how individuals construe others and the society within which they live is mutually dependent (e.g., Cooley, 1902; Mead, 1934). As a result, social comparisons serve important functions for the community as they enable social coordination, development of social bonds, and expressions of support to others (Krizan & Gibbons, 2014).
First, social comparisons support social coordination and intimate connections with others. Attention on how one compares to others is frequently motivated by a desire to connect. When interacting with others more generally, the focus is likely to be on whether there are similarities or bonds between the interactants, rather than on who is better or worse (i.e., on horizontal over vertical comparisons; Locke & Nekich, 2000). For example, intense repeated comparison of experiences are necessary for reciprocal self-disclosure that occurs during interactions, as when a new pair of friends is building intimacy (Sprecher, Treger, Wondra, Hilaire, & Wallpe, 2013). For example, in order to reciprocate a friend’s story about a horrible camping experience, an individual is likely to consider similar personal experiences relevant to the conversation that could be then shared in a turn-taking fashion (Hodges, Kiel, Kramer, Veach, & Villanueva, 2010). The importance of connecting via comparisons seems particularly important with close others, where comparisons are especially likely to be connective and generate feelings of communion (Locke, 2003; Wheeler & Miyake, 1992). Moreover, a sense of connection seems to inspire further interest and need for comparison, especially in romantic relationships (Lockwood & Pinkus, 2014). In short, individuals intensely compare with others during social interactions in order to build relationships and intimacy.
Second, individuals may often orchestrate unflattering comparisons in order to protect others’ feelings, public image, or avoid harming mutual connection (Exline & Lobel, 1999). For example, in response to a survey why people sometimes underperform, 70% of individuals indicated the motive to spare others’ (especially friends’) feelings or to help maintain others’ confidence (White, Sanbonmatsu, Croyle, & Smittipatana, 2002). One way to spare others is to conceal information that may make them feel inferior; for example, students conceal their grades from others students or deprecate themselves when in a position of clear superiority (Arroyo & Zigler, 1995; Exline & Lobel, 2009). Another way is to try enhancing others’ standing relative to oneself by emphasizing additional information. For example, outperforming a peer leads participants to offer reassurance to that inferior peer (Zell & Exline, 2014). A final route is to directly emphasize mutual connection and build feelings of communion. This can be achieved by sharing the goods associated with one’s superiority (Zell & Exline, 2010). It can also be achieved by helping the inferior individual on an unrelated task, such as helping a peer one has previously outperformed (van de Ven, Zeelenberg, & Pieters, 2010). These examples emphasize that people often manage appearance of comparisons in order to spare other’s feelings and build a common bond.
Third, people often seek information about which group identity to adopt in a current situation precisely because they want to connect optimally with others; it is critical to put on one’s golfer “hat” rather than one’s manager “hat” if one is trying to get closer to one’s golfing partners. In this vein, theories focused on social identities emphasize that individuals compare with others within their group in order to develop a sense of a group prototype that will then serve as a general comparison referent for further behavior (Abrams, Wetherell, Cochrane, Hogg, & Turner, 1990; Hogg & Reid, 2006; Turner, 1991). Individuals who deviate from such group prototypes are often derogated and labeled “black sheep” by their fellow ingroup members because they threaten the distinctiveness or cohesion of their group (Asch, 1951; Marques & Paez, 1994). As a result, comparing with others within one’s group and achieving similarity with the group norm is one cardinal way in which social connections are maintained.
Social comparison is a fundamental aspect of human behavior. Research and theory on social comparison originated by emphasizing how comparisons with those slight better off help people gain knowledge about their abilities and opinions (Festinger, 1954); diversified toward recognizing multiple forms, directions, and consequences of social comparison (Locke, 2003; Smith, 2000; Wood, 1989); and ultimately identified multiple functions underlying social comparison activity emphasized here (Helgeson & Mickelson, 1995; Krizan & Gibbons, 2014). Social cognitive perspectives have proven critical in informing social comparison research, as individuals’ construal of the world, the social information they pay attention to, and the identities that are momentarily salient all play a crucial role in the social comparison process (Mussweiler, 2003). How social comparisons help satisfy different functions in different contexts, when these purposes come in conflict and how are they resolved, and how their use varies across social and cultural groups, all remain core questions for future inquiry and theory development.
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