You are here

Social Comparison Theory: Our Sense of Self Is Influenced by Comparisons with Others

1 February, 2016 - 12:25

Self-concept and self-esteem are also heavily influenced by the process of social comparison (Buunk & Gibbons, 2007; Van Lange, 2008). Social comparison occurs when we learn about our abilities and skills, about the appropriateness and validity of our opinions, and about our relative social status by comparing our own attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors with those of others. These comparisons can be with people who we know and interact with, with those whom we read about or see on TV, or with anyone else we view as important. However, the most meaningful comparisons we make tend to be with those we see as similar to ourselves (Festinger, 1954).

Social comparison occurs primarily on dimensions on which there are no correct answers or objective benchmarks and thus on which we can rely only on the beliefs of others for information. Answers to questions such as “What should I wear to the interview?” or “What kind of music should I have at my wedding?” are frequently determined at least in part by using the behavior of others as a basis of comparison. We also use social comparison to help us determine our skills or abilities—how good we are at performing a task or doing a job, for example. When students ask their teacher for the class average on an exam, they are also seeking to use social comparison to evaluate their performance.

Research Focus: Affiliation and Social Comparison

The extent to which individuals use social comparison to determine their evaluations of events was demonstrated in a set of classic research studies conducted by Stanley Schachter (1959). Schachter’s experiments tested the hypothesis that people who were feeling anxious would prefer to affiliate with others rather than be alone because having others around would reduce their anxiety. Female college students at the University of Minnesota volunteered to participate in one of his experiments for extra credit in their introductory psychology class. They arrived at the experimental room to find a scientist dressed in a white lab coat, standing in front of a large array of electrical machinery. The scientist introduced himself as Dr. Zilstein of the Department of Neurology and Psychiatry, and he told the women that they would be serving as participants in an experiment concerning the effects of electrical shock. Dr. Zilstein stressed how important it was to learn about the effects of shocks, since electroshock therapy was being used more and more commonly and because the number of accidents due to electricity was also increasing! At this point, the experimental manipulation occurred. One half of the participants (those in the high-anxiety condition) were told that the shocks would be “painful” and “intense,” although they were assured that they could do no permanent damage. The other half of the participants (those in the low-anxiety condition) were also told that they would be receiving shocks but that they would in no way be painful—rather, the shocks were said to be mild and to resemble a “tickle” or a “tingle.” Of course, the respondents were randomly assigned to conditions to assure that the women in the two conditions were, on average, equivalent except for the experimental manipulation. Each of the women was then told that before the experiment could continue the experimenter would have to prepare the equipment and that they would have to wait until he was finished. He asked them if they would prefer to wait alone or with others. The outcome of Schachter’s research was clear: while only 33% of the women who were expecting mild shocks preferred to wait with others, 63% of the women expecting to get painful shocks wanted to wait with others. This was a statistically significant difference, and Schachter concluded that the women chose to affiliate with each other in order to reduce their anxiety about the upcoming shocks. In further studies, Schachter found that the research participants who were under stress did not want to wait with just any other people. They preferred to wait with other people who were expecting to undergo the same severe shocks that they were rather than with people who were supposedly just waiting to see their professor. Schachter concluded that this was not just because being around other people might reduce our anxiety but because we also use others who are in the same situation as we are to help us determine how to feel about things. As Schachter (1959) put it, Misery doesn’t just love any kind of company, it loves only miserable company (p. 24). In this case, the participants were expecting to determine from the other participants how afraid they should be of the upcoming shocks. In short, and as predicted by the idea of social comparison, the women in Schachter’s studies relied on each other to help them understand what was happening to them and to find out how they should feel and respond to their social situations. Again, the power of the social situation—in this case, in determining our beliefs and attitudes—is apparent. Although Schachter’s studies were conducted in relatively artificial lab settings, similar effects have been found in field studies in more naturally occurring settings. For instance, Kulik, Mahler, and Moore (1996) found that hospital patients who were awaiting surgery preferred to talk to other individuals who were expecting to have similar procedures rather than to patients who were having different procedures, so that they could share information about what they might expect to experience. Furthermore, Kulik and his colleagues found that sharing information was helpful: people who were able to share more information had shorter hospital stays.