Although we use social comparison in part to develop our self-concept—that is, to form accurate conclusions about our attitudes, abilities, and opinions—social comparison has perhaps an even bigger impact on our self-esteem. When we are able to compare ourselves favorably with others, we feel good about ourselves, but when the outcome of comparison suggests that others are better or better off than we are, then our self-esteem is likely to suffer. This is one reason why good students who attend high schools in which the other students are only average may suddenly find their self-esteem threatened when they move on to colleges and universities in which they are no longer better than the other students (Marsh, Kong, & Hau, 2000). Perhaps you’ve had the experience yourself of the changes in self-esteem that occur when you have moved into a new year in school, got a new job, or changed your circle of friends. In these cases, you may have felt much better about yourself or much worse, depending on the nature of the change. You can see that in these cases the actual characteristics of the individual person have not changed at all; only the social situation and the comparison with others have changed.
Because many people naturally want to have positive self-esteem, they frequently attempt to compare themselves positively with others. Downward social comparison occurs when we attempt to create a positive image of ourselves through favorable comparisons with others who are worse off than we are. In one study Morse and Gergen (1970) had students apply for a job, and they also presented the students with another individual who was supposedly applying for the same job. When the other candidate was made to appear to be less qualified for the job, the downward comparison with the less-qualified applicant made the students feel better about their own qualifications. As a result, the students reported higher self-esteem than they did when the other applicant was seen as a highly competent job candidate. Research has also found that people who are suffering from serious diseases prefer to compare their condition with other individuals whose current condition and likely prognosis is worse than their own (Buunk, Gibbons, & Visser, 2002). These comparisons make them feel more hopeful about their own possible outcomes. More frequent use of downward than upward social comparison with similar others has been been shown to be a commonly used coping strategy for preserving self-esteem in the face of a wide variety of challenging life situations, including experiences of physical decline, rheumatoid arthritis, AIDS, occupational burnout, eating disorders, unemployment, educational difficulties, and intellectual disabilities (Buunk, Gibbons, & Buunk, 1997).
Although downward comparison provides us with positive feelings, upward social comparison, which occurs when we compare ourselves with others who are better off than we are, is also common (Blanton, Buunk, Gibbons, & Kuyper, 1999; Vrugt & Koenis, 2002). Upward comparison may lower our self-esteem by reminding us that we are not as well off as others. The power of upward social comparison to decrease self-esteem has been documented in many domains (Buunk, Gibbons, & Buunk, 1997). Thinking back to our case study at the beginning of this chapter, this power can sometimes be strongly felt when looking at social networking sites. Imagine someone who has had a bad day, or is generally unhappy with how life is going, then logs onto Facebook to see that most of his or her friends have posted very positive status updates about how happy they are, how well they are doing, or the wonderful vacations they are having. What would your prediction be about how that person would feel? Would that person take pleasure from knowing that the friends were happy, or would the friends’ happiness make the person feel worse? The research on upward social comparisons to similar others would suggest the latter, and this has been demonstrated empirically. Feinstein and colleagues (2013) investigated whether a tendency to make upward social comparisons on Facebook led to increased symptoms of depression over a three-week period. Sure enough, making more upward comparisons predicted increased rumination, which in turn was linked to increased depressive symptoms.
Despite these negative effects of upward comparisons, they can sometimes be useful because they provide information that can help us do better, help us imagine ourselves as part of the group of successful people that we want to be like (Collins, 2000), and give us hope (Snyder, Cheavens, & Sympson, 1997). The power of upward social comparison can also be harnessed for social good. When people are made aware that others are already engaging in particular prosocial behaviors, they often follow suit, partly because an upward social comparison is triggered. This has been shown in relation to sustainable environmental practices, for example, with upward social comparisons helping to facilitate energy-saving behaviors in factory workers (Siero, Bakker, Dekker, & van den Berg, 1996) and hotel guests (Goldstein, Cialdini, & Griskevicius, 2008). As with downward comparisons, the effects of looking upward on our self-esteem tend to be more pronounced when we are comparing ourselves to similar others. If, for example, you have ever performed badly at a sport, the chances are that your esteem was more threatened when you compared yourselves to your teammates as opposed to the top professional athletes in that sport.
The outcomes of upward and downward social comparisons can have a substantial impact on our feelings, on our attempts to do better, and even on whether or not we want to continue performing an activity. When we compare positively with others and we feel that we are meeting our goals and living up to the expectations set by ourselves and others, we feel good about ourselves, enjoy the activity, and work harder at it. When we compare negatively with others, however, we are more likely to feel poorly about ourselves and enjoy the activity less, and we may even stop performing it entirely. When social comparisons come up poorly for us, we may experience depression or anxiety, and these discrepancies are important determinants of our self-esteem (Higgins, Loeb, & Moretti, 1995; Strauman & Higgins, 1988).
Although everyone makes social comparisons, both upward and downward, there are some sources of differences in how often we do so and which type we tend to favor. As downward social comparisons generally increase and upward ones generally decrease self-esteem, and the pursuit of high self-esteem, as we have seen, is more prominent in Western as opposed to Eastern cultures, then it should come as no surprise that there are cultural differences here. White and Lehman (2005), for example, found that Asian Canadians made more upward social comparisons than did European Canadians, particularly following failures and when the opportunity to self-improve was made salient. These findings, the authors suggest, indicate that the Asian Canadians were using social comparisons more as a vehicle for self-improvement than self-enhancement.
There are also some age-related trends in social comparison. In general, older adults tend to make more downward comparisons than do younger adults, which is part of the reason why their self-esteem is typically higher (Helgeson & Mickelson, 2000). Older adults also use more downward social comparisons to cope with feelings of regret than do younger adults, and these comparisons are often more effective for them (Bauer, Wrosch, & Jobin, 2008). In addition to these cultural and age differences in social comparison processes, there are also individual differences. People who score higher on a measure of social comparison orientation have been found to experience more positive affect following downward social comparisons and more negative affect following upward ones (Buunk, Zurriaga, Peiró, Nauta, & Gosalvez, 2005).