Social Comparison Theory

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The social comparison theory states that people information about their own self can gain by comparison with others. It was founded in 1954 by Leon Festinger's work A Theory of Social Comparison Processes and has been continuously developed since then.

Basic assumptions in Festinger's theory

  1. People feel the need to get a realistic picture of the world, including one's own self . This need is particularly great when adequate self-assessment is important. Example: Test subjects have a greater need for social comparison before they are asked to choose one of several differently difficult tasks to work on than after completing this task.
  2. Social comparison takes place when there is no objective yardstick. Example: A school class gets a new teacher. Student A gets his exam and has a 3. Since he does not know the teacher and does not know whether he gives good or bad grades, the grade in this case is a less than objective criterion for evaluating his own performance and student A will compare with his classmates.
  3. People are motivated to improve their own skills and abilities.
  4. Most of the information is a comparison with people with similar backgrounds, skills, and opinions to yourself. For example, people tend to compare themselves to best friends or relatives; they already have the necessary information about the points of comparison. [4]
  5. People are motivated to reduce gaps in opinion with other people. To do this, they either adapt their own opinion (especially if they are in the minority) or try to convince their counterpart of their position (especially if they hold the majority position).

Directions of comparison

The comparison with fellow human beings has three possible functions and directions:

Horizontal comparison

Those who need realistic information about their present self compare themselves to similar, equals, peers .

Downward comparison

Anyone who wants to protect or improve their self-esteem compares themselves with people who are inferior in the characteristic of interest, the downward comparison. Example: Cancer patients are more likely to compare themselves to sick people who are worse off than themselves.

The downward comparison ( English comparison downward ) is given to people who are worse or just as bad as a self. The importance of downward comparisons for subjective well-being and the self-worth is emotional theme of social comparison theory and model maintaining self-assessment .

People can increase their subjective well-being by comparing them with “less happy others” (strong version of the downward-looking comparison) or with “equally unhappy others” (weak version of the comparison). The state of the others is either found (and then has a passive basis) or is established through attack and damage (and then has an active basis).

The situational implication is that downward comparisons are made more likely by the decrease in subjective well-being. The personality-dependent conclusion is that people with low self-esteem have a greater tendency towards downward comparison than people with high self-esteem.

Downward comparisons tend to relate to target individuals with low social status (“target principle”). The “principle of ambivalence” postulates that people are ambivalent with regard to downward comparisons , since their satisfaction is promoted, but the perceived fairness is impaired. Making profit from comparing people who are badly off is at odds with the implicit understanding of what fairness is.

Upward comparison

(The so-called upward comparison English upward comparison ), as a comparative model, a person is used, which appears superior in a certain features. This can refer to external characteristics, physical performance or material goods.

Whoever wants to know what possibilities he has, what improvements are possible, compares himself with people who are superior in the characteristic of interest; that is the upward comparison. This type of comparison can have negative effects on self-esteem and body image, among other things.

The envy associated with the upside comparison can be divided into two types. The benign, constructive and the malicious, destructive envy.

The constructive envy is a motivation for improvement. The performance of the role model is understood as self-developed and deserved, whereby the initiative is increased in order to achieve similar successes. You try to reach the same or a similar level by improving yourself or your skills.

Destructive envy is characterized by the fact that you meet the superior person with a hostile attitude and want to diminish their reputation with others. This is the case when the superiority of the person is considered undeserved. Through the derogatory attitude, the person should be adjusted to one's own level, since one sees no chance to improve oneself through performance.

The study by Brown and colleagues addresses this issue. The researchers investigated what the self-perception of female test subjects is with regard to their attractiveness after viewing an advertising model. The results suggest that women tend to be less attractive when looking at a supposedly more attractive woman. In comparison, the female subjects feel more attractive when confronted with a supposedly less attractive woman.

The increasing use of media means that there are more starting points for upward comparisons. When looking at the comparison material, this leads to increased feelings of inferiority.

This comparison direction can lead to a reduced self-esteem, or it can turn into motivation and inspiration. Example: Cancer patients compare themselves to successfully cured patients. [10]

Influencing factors

Motivation is the central aspect of envy. In the case of constructive envy, it serves to achieve the standard of the model. In the case of destructive envy, on the other hand, what is decisive is the form of motivation. In the case of a strong expression, on the one hand, it serves not to fall below a certain standard. On the other hand, if it is low, as described in the case of destructive envy, it is considered unlikely to ever achieve the desired standard.

Social comparison on social networking sites (SNS)

When using social network sites such as Facebook or Instagram, information can be used continuously for downward and upward comparisons. SNS are a frequently used means of doing this, as information gathering is quick and easy.

One example is the “Fitspiration” phenomenon. This movement, which is particularly widespread on Instagram, promotes a conscious and healthy lifestyle. The presentation of excessively lean and trained bodies on SNS leads to an upward comparison among users. On the one hand, this can lead to increased motivation (e.g. to do more sport or to eat more consciously), on the other hand, the upward comparison can have a negative effect on one's own well-being (e.g. in the form of depression or anorexia).


A study by Klein (1997) gives rise to doubts as to whether people always use objective information. In a first run, the test subjects were asked to evaluate works of art. They then received manipulated feedback about their aesthetic judgment (40% vs. 60% "correct" answers) as well as the manipulated information that they had done better or worse than the average. Then they got the offer to solve another task. If they were more than 50% correct, they would get $ 10. Those who believed they were 60% correct, as expected, agreed. Those who, according to the feedback, were only 40% correct made it dependent on whether they were better or worse than the average. Those who believed they had done above average took part much more often, although from a rational point of view their objective performance should have been the only decisive factor.

The Related Attributes hypothesis (Goethals & Darley ) suggests that comparators are selected based on similarity to performance-related attributes. Example: If a student has written a grade 3 in an exam, he will not compare himself with those who also have a 3 (this would postulate the 4th basic assumption), but perhaps with the students who spend a similar amount of time in preparation invested in the exam. This would be a relevant attribute.


  • H. Appel, AL Gerlach, J. Crusius: The interplay between Facebook use, social comparison, envy, and depression . In: Current Opinion in Psychology , 9, 2016, pp 44-49.
  • H.-W. Bierhoff, MJ Herner: Conceptual dictionary social psychology . Kohlhammer, 2002.
  • Rebecca L. Collins: For Better or Worse: The Impact of Upward Social Comparison on Self-Evaluations . In: Psychological Bulletin , ISSN  0033-2909 , Vol. 119 (1996), No. 1, pp. 51-69.
  • Leon Festinger: A Theory of Social Comparison Processes . In: Human Relations (1954), No. 7, pp. 117-140.
  • WM Klein: Objective standards are not enough: Affective, self-evaluative, and behavioral responses to social comparison information . In: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , Vol. 72 (1997), pp. 763-774.
  • JM Suls, L. Wheeler (Eds.): Handbook of social comparison: Theory and research . Kluwer / Plenum, New York 2000
  • M. Tiggemann, M. Zaccardo: “Exercise to be fit, not skinny”: The effect of fitspiration imagery on women's body image . In: Body Image , 15, 2015, pp. 61-67.
  • TA Wills: Similarity and self-esteem in downward comparison . In: J. Suls, TA Wills (Ed.): Social comparison . Lawrence Erlbaum. Hillsdale NJ 1991, pp. 51-78.

Individual evidence

  1. ^ T. Mussweiler: Comparison processes in social judgment: Mechanisms and consequences . In: Psychological Review , 110 (3), 2003, pp. 472-489
  2. ^ Katja Corcoran, Jan Crusius, Thomas Mussweiler: Social comparison: Motives, standards, and mechanisms . In: Derek Chadee (ed.): Theories in social psychology . Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford UK 2011, p. 119-139 ( [PDF]).
  3. Stephen C. Jones, Dennis T. Regan: Ability evaluation through social comparison . In: Journal of Experimental Social Psychology . Volume 10, Issue 2. Elsevier, March 1974, p. 133-146 , doi : 10.1016 / 0022-1031 (74) 90062-6 .
  4. ^ JM Suls, B. Fletcher: Social comparison in the social and physical sciences: An archival study . In: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 44, 1983, pp. 575-580
  5. ^ SE Taylor et al .: Attribution, beliefs about control, and adjustment to breast cancer . In: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 46, 1985, pp 489-502
  6. ^ TA Wills: Downward comparison principles in social psychology . In: Psychological Bulletin , 90, 1981, pp. 245-271.
  7. Elke Nürnberger: Self-confidence . Haufe, Freiburg 2010, ISBN 978-3-648-00318-3 , p. 47.
  8. M. Häfner: Beautiful, rich and unreachable? About the flexible consequences of social comparisons with models . In: InMind , 2 (2010)
  9. Jan Crusius, Jens Lange: What catches the envious eye? Attentional biases within malicious and benign envy . In: Journal of Experimental Social Psychology . tape 55 , November 2014, ISSN  0022-1031 , p. 1–11 , doi : 10.1016 / j.jesp.2014.05.007 .
  10. JD Brown, NJ Novick, KA Lord, JM Richards: When Gulliver travels: Social context, psychological closeness, and self-appraisals . In: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 62, 1992, pp. 718/719
  11. ^ Jens Lange, Jan Crusius: Dispositional envy revisited: Unraveling the motivational dynamics of benign and malicious envy . January 8, 2019 doi: 10.31234 / / br39f
  12. GR Goethals, JM Darley: Social comparison theory: An attributional approach . In: JM Suls, RL Miller (eds.): Social comparison processes: Theoretical and empirical perspectives . Hemisphere / Halsted, Washington DC 1977, pp. 259-278