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Social Comparisons in Our Social Society

March 18th, 2019

“Don’t waste your energy trying to change opinions …

do your thing, and don’t care if they like it.”

– Tina Fey

Being Compared...

Have you ever noticed yourself comparing yourself to others? Maybe you compare yourself to the same person over and over again. Or, maybe you regularly compare yourself with a whole group of people. As humans, we are inclined to evaluate ourselves based on other people around us.

What is Social Comparison?

As previously stated, as humans, we are hardwired to examine other people, evaluate those people, evaluate ourselves, and then compare ourselves to those around us who we have evaluated. Social comparison, therefore, is the process by which this examination and evaluation takes place. In psychology, there is a theory revolved around this phenomenon called the Social Comparison Theory.

What is the Social Comparison Theory?

  • This theory states that individuals place their own self-worth, both personally and socially, on how they compare with others
  • If individuals perceive that they stack up well against others, they will tend to grant themselves a higher self-worth
  • On the other hand, if individuals perceive that they are not stacking up to other’s abilities they will determine a low self-worth

When Might We Engage in Social Comparison?

All the time! Because this mechanism is hardwired into us as humans, we are constantly engaging in social comparison. Common social settings where we compare ourselves may include:

  • At the grocery store – to see what others are buying/eating, or how others are parenting their children
  • In the gym – to see if our fitness stacks up to others
  • In daycare or elementary school – to see how other kids compare to our own
  • In the parking lot – to compare our vehicle to others’ vehicles (and sense of status)

This phenomenon is certainly not new to the human species, as social comparison has been occurring for centuries on end. However, it may be that social comparison is currently at an unrivaled height that has yet to be experienced by previous generations!

What is the cause for this change and increase in our propensity to compare ourselves to other people? The answer – technology, namely the internet. Yes, the internet. But even more specifically social media! There are numerous times that we compare ourselves to others in the day-to-day happenings of our lives, but this number is often too many to count when talking about social media.

Social Comparison in Social Media

Multicultural group of young people men and women looking shocked at mobile phone

Social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) are vehicles that allow people to observe others and compare themselves to what others are posting and displaying. There are numerous issues with this new form of social comparison:

  • Social Media does not equal real
    • In other words, just because people are posting something, does not mean that is an accurate and authentic representation of their lives
    • It is a natural tendency to want to display yourself in the best light possible and therefore post “the highlights” or the best part of whatever activity, event, or entity they are posting about
  • Speaking of the best light possible...filters, lighting, and angles are involved
    • Most social media apps have options to change photos so that the lighting is just right and so that the picture comes out enhanced and improved
    • On top of that, there are often many takes and retakes of pictures before they are posted
    • While these features and changes may seem small and benign, they impact the way the viewer interprets the picture
    • This interpretation, especially when in a social comparison context, can make a huge difference in the psychology of the interpreter
  • More Extreme Alterations, Photoshop
    • While changing the filters and lighting is altering the picture, it is not changing the contents of the photo
    • This occurs with photoshop, an altering of the subject matter of the photo, which is on the extreme end of photo alterations
    • This can be extremely troubling for people comparing one’s appearance to the appearance of people (especially models and celebrities); whose photo is not even an accurate representation of what they look like
    • This social comparison can lead to negative feelings about:
      • Oneself
      • Reduced self-efficacy
      • Reduced self-esteem
      • Feelings of inferiority
      • Hopelessness
      • Sadness
      • Frustration

Types of Social Comparison

Upward social comparison and downward social comparison

By now, you may be thinking that all social comparison is all bad and that we should avoid it at all costs. However, that is not necessarily the case. It can be beneficial to have some social comparison, but it must be in the appropriate times and in an appropriate amount. This will be explained below, while discussing the two types of social comparison – downward social comparison and upward social comparison.

  • Downward Social Comparison
    • Downward Social Comparison involves comparing oneself to someone who they perceive to be less fortunate, inferior to, or less proficient than themselves
    • This can be beneficial (at the appropriate time and in the appropriate amount) in a number of ways:
  1. Can increase positive affect
  2. Can decrease negative moods
  3. Can increase optimism about the future
  4. Can enhance self-esteem
  5. Can increase relationship satisfaction
  • Upward Social Comparison
    • Opposite of downward social comparison, upward social comparison involves comparing oneself to someone who they perceive to be better than themselves
    • This, too, can be beneficial (at the appropriate time and in the appropriate amount) in a number of ways:
  1. Can allow for new goal-setting
  2. Can provide motivation for improvement
  3. Can improve our own confidence (watching others complete a task or achieve a feat can provide us with confidence we can do the same thing!)
  4. Can provide knowledge (learning from others’ experiences)

Social Comparison, The Takeaways

While there are many dangers from engaging in social comparison, there are also benefits from it too. Both downward and upward social comparison can have drawbacks as well as advantages. The key to engaging in social comparison is moderation and timing. There are times when comparing oneself to others is okay and natural, and there are other times it can be harmful and detrimental to one’s psychology.


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