Social Comparison Theory And Drive For Self Evaluation Psychology Essay

Define, describe, exemplify, and discuss the main concepts in psychological literature on social comparison. Explain how the social comparison findings, methodology, and theorizing have evolved since the publication of Leon Festingers theory in 1954. Write about the interaction between affect and social comparison.

Social comparison theory, based on ones drive for self-evaluation, was first coined by Leon Festinger (1954). It describes a motivation held by individuals to evaluate ones opinions and abilities in comparison with others (Kruglanski & Mayseless, 1990). This may be referring to a physical observation (for example comparing physical strength or fitness) or a comparison to others (Wheeler & Miyake, 1992). This essay examines the origins of the theory of social comparison as well as the evolution of the theory. Several models have been developed from the theory of social comparison, including the Triadic Model and the Proxy model which shall be discussed. Research findings are also presented and the theory is applied to a number of social examples. Finally, the interaction between affect and social comparison shall be presented and evaluated.

Although Festinger (1954) was the first to name the theory of social comparison, the concept of comparison with others has existed since the first social philosophers. Plato discussed an individuals understanding of the self through comparison with the norm, while Aristotle spoke of the comparisons made between people (Suls & Wheeler, 2000). The self and its social origins, along with its comparisons with others have come to the forefront over the last one hundred years, however (Suls & Wheeler, 2000). Indeed, writings by Sherif (1936), Asch (1943) and Hyman (1956) are all thought to have influenced Festingers social comparison theory (as cited in Suls & Wheeler, 2000).

In his theory, Festinger (1954) presents a number of hypotheses. He proposed that people have a motive to self-evaluate by comparing their abilities and opinions to others, which can lead to uniformity. He also suggested that individuals who are significantly comparable to ones self are a particularly useful comparison when evaluating ones attitudes or abilities. Festinger (1954) also argued that people have a motivation to increase ability, which he did not observe when examining opinions. There have, however, been many research developments since Festingers first proposal. His hypothesis suggesting that those who are significantly similar to the self are of particular use when evaluating ones attitudes or abilities has come under question. Kruglanski and Mayseless (1990) argue that this desire to compare the self to similar others was only an assumption made by Festinger (1954). Suls, Martin, and Wheeler (2002) argue that Festinger (1954) did not identify the source of similarity between those making the comparison and the individual being compared. Indeed, if a person is very similar to the self, there is not a significant amount of comparison to undertake. Recent literature suggests that there are further motivations to initiate social comparisons (Suls et al., 2002), and researchers have since found situations in which dissimilar individuals are the preferred others with whom one compares oneself (Wills, 1981). It was suggested that enhancing or protective strategies were employed which compared the self to others who were in a worse or better situation than themselves (Suls et al., 2002; Wills, 1981).

Many of the research findings and theoretical advancements made since Festingers (1954) article are closely linked to developments in research methods. Research has moved from the laboratory to a combination of laboratory and field research (Taylor, 1998). Wood (1996, as cited in Suls & Wheeler, 2000) introduced a new method of research, in which social comparisons were examined in both settings. Early research, which focused on laboratory experiments, focused on comparison choice and response effects and open-ended interviewing. This reliance on retrospection can, however, be risky, with recall of comparisons being considered untrustworthy (Reis & Wheeler, 1991, as cited in Suls & Wheeler, 2000). More recent research methods include palm tap computers and event sampling (Tennen & Affleck, 1997, as cited in Suls & Wheeler, 2000), diary methods (Smith & Leach, 2004) and signal-contingent self-recording, interval-contingent self-recording and event-contingent self-recording (Wheeler & Reis, 1991, as cited in Wheeler & Miyake, 1992) which examine everyday comparisons and aim to avoid dependence on retrospective reports. These newer techniques also facilitate the differentiation between comparisons which participants wish to make and comparisons which are put upon them.

Social comparison theory has been applied to many theoretical concepts within psychology since 1954. It has been associated, for example, with self-enhancement strategies (Wills, 1981), affect (Wheeler & Miyake, 1992; Buunk, Collins, Taylor, VanYperen & Dakof, 1990), opinion formulation (Suls, Martin & Wheeler 2002) and belief about personal abilities (Wheeler, Martin & Suls, 1997) all of which are discussed below. It has also been investigated in relation to such concepts as the preservation of positive self evaluation (Tesser & Campbell, 1982, as cited in Kruglanski & Mayseless, 1990), closure (Kruglanski & Mayseless, 1987, as cited in Kruglanski & Mayseless, 1990), group membership (Smith & Leach, 2004) and social identity (Turner, 2006).

Social comparisons are used to understand beliefs about personal abilities in what is referred to as the proxy model. People are often faced with a task that they have never attempted before, yet they attempt to predict their success on the task through comparing themselves to another (a proxy) who has attempted the task. If the individual has performed similarly on a previous task that the proxy has performed, and the individual knows that the proxy put in maximum effort on the previous task, then the individual predicts that they can do as well as the proxy on the new, unfamiliar task (Suls, Martin & Wheeler, 2002).

Opinion formulation and social comparison is examined in the triadic model (Suls et al., 2002). It suggests that belief evaluation, in regards to facts, is strongly influenced by the similar expert. This refers to an opinion being formed or changed about a particular topic by an expert, as long as that expert is somehow similar to the individual (eg. same political views) but in some way different (eg. is more knowledgeable than the individual on the particular subject).


Wills (1981) presented a branch of social comparison theory known as the downward-comparison theory. This theory suggests that those who are in a vulnerable situation often compare their situation with those who are in a poorer position in order to boost the self.

Downward comparison theory addresses situations in which frustration or misfortune has occurred that is difficult to remedy through instrumental action. In such a situation a person’s subjective well-being has been decreased, and the problem is how it can be restored. A solution to this problem is to compare oneself with another person who is worse off; the favorable comparison between the self and the less fortunate other enables a person to feel better about his or her own situation. (Wills, 1981, p. 246)

In a study by Frieswijk, Buunk, Steverink and Slaets (2004) on life satisfaction of 455 older adults, participants were presented with hypothetical characters who were either upward or downward comparisons. It was found that downward comparisons, with characters that were considered as different from participants, served to enhance the self and increase life satisfaction among frail older people. Similarly, in a study of 78 breast cancer patients (Wood, Taylor & Lichtman, 1985), both closed-ended interview questions and patient reports showed that coping strategies often involved downward comparisons. Indeed downward comparison theory was a dominant coping strategy in areas such as health psychology for over a decade (Suls et al., 2002).

Recent research has questioned the concept of downward comparison, however and critically assessed research techniques. The interviews and surveys which produced results supporting downward comparisons have since come into question. For one, Suls et al. (2002) argue that these studies did not include a control group, with whom no comparison was observed. Indeed, without a control condition it proves impossible to tell whether downward comparisons increased wellbeing, or whether upward comparisons has the opposite effect. Secondly, positive effects of upward comparison were observed by Collins (2000, as cited in Suls et al., 2002). Research was presented that suggested that individuals deliberately evaluate themselves in relation to those in a better position in order to improve their self view. Collins (2000, as cited in Suls et al., 2002) argues that this is a result of individuals believing that they have positive qualities and are among the elite. Finally, research examining unprompted social comparisons found that affect is strongly related to social comparisons (Wheeler & Miyake, 1992; Buunk et al., 1990).


Upward and downward social comparisons have been examined in relation to affect, since the research carried out by Wills (1981). While previous research states that when self-improvement motivates social comparison an individual will compare upwards, and when self-esteem is threatened one will compare downwards, research carried out by Wheeler and Miyake (1992) and Buunk et al. (1990) suggests that it is not so black and white, and introduce an affect variable into their literature. Buunk et al. (1990) argue that discovering that another is in a worse situation than the self provides more information than simply I am not in the worst situation. It also informs the individual that they could get worse. They suggest that focusing on the fact that another is in a worse situation can provide positive feelings, while focusing on the potential prospect of getting worse could produce negative feelings about oneself the benefits of downward thinking depend on how the individual interprets the information provided. Indeed, affective consequences define how beneficial upward or downward social comparisons can be. In two studies carried out by Buunk et al. (1990) affect and social comparisons are examined.

In their first study, Buunk et al. (1990) compared cancer patients self esteem and the relationship between social comparison and affect. Those who displayed low levels of perceived control over their health and symptoms as well as low self-esteem viewed downward comparisons as negative towards themselves (eg. look how much worse I could get). Similarly, they observed that individuals with low levels of self-esteem perceived upward social comparison as negative (eg. my situation is really bad compared to others). Their second study examined marital dissatisfaction and social comparisons. They found that people with high levels of marital discontent and people who experienced marital uncertainty experienced more negative affects from both downward comparisons and upward comparisons (Buunk et al., 1990).

Wheeler and Miyake (1992) also questioned the use of upward and downward social comparisons and their relation to affect, using the Rochester Social Comparison Record. They found that whether an individual used upward or downward social comparison depended on their relationship with the other person. They also reported that if an individual reported being in a negative mood before the comparison, then there were more likely to compare upward. This, they argue, suggests that affect primes the type of social comparison carried out, rather than the motivation model presented by Wills (1981, 1991, as cited by Wheeler & Miyake, 1992). Both articles outline the apparent relationship between affect and social comparison, suggesting that the form of comparison undertaken depends on more than merely the motivations to compare the self to another.

The early developments of social comparison theory, as well as more recent research developments have now been discussed. Although a large part of Festingers original theory still stands, theoretical and methodological developments have facilitated a deeper understanding of when and why individuals make comparisons with others. It has also touched on who these comparisons are made with. The most striking developments have been made in research methods, in which changes in study location and design has produced surprisingly opposing results, as discussed by Wheeler and Miyake (1992). They argue that contradictive measures result in an empirical deficient at the foundations of the theory, which needs to be rectified. It is clear, however, that the theory of social comparison is a broad trunk of research, in which many branches of comparison and investigation has, and shall be applied to an enormous variety of concepts.