What is Social Comparison Theory and How Does it Affect You?

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In this day and age, social media has become a necessity, a way of life, as opposed to a fun way to pass idle time.  Local law enforcement utilizes Facebook to catch criminals, businesses use Twitter to promote themselves, and products are featured and sold on You Tube.  In addition to these logistical purposes, more and more individuals and families are using social media to share aspects of their life, whether it be stories, tidbits, events, or pictures.  You can get a pretty accurate snapshot of an individual’s life just by scrolling through their Instagram page.  While social media can be beneficial to share information, especially with loved ones residing in different geographical regions, social media also serves as a grand stage for social comparison.

Social comparison theory was founded by Leon Festinger, a social psychologist, in the 1950’s.  Social comparison theory asserts that individuals are motivated to evaluate themselves with accuracy.  Ideas, values, and attitudes are measured by comparing ourselves to others to obtain an accurate sense of self.  The theory asserts that individuals seek to reduce confusion about them by garnering information about others.

Social comparison theory centers on several main principles.  Festinger believed that individuals have an inner drive and motivation to evaluate themselves objectively and will measure themselves against others if there is no objective measurement readily available.  Despite this, individuals will cease comparison with others if the assessment is accompanied with resentment and undesirable consequence.

Another principle discusses how individuals will not evaluate themselves against someone that they perceive to be wholly different and instead, will find someone perceived as similar to ensure accurate self-evaluation.  There is often elevated pressure to conform to thoughts and values inherent to a group when that comparison group is revered.  An individual may try to influence a comparison group to align with their own principles, but will ultimately move towards conformity if persuasive efforts are unsuccessful.

Since the 1950’s, the theory has evolved and research has begun to center not only on social comparison as a way for individuals to define themselves, but as a mechanism for improvement and enhancement.  Individuals are motivated to engage in social comparison to validate them and for positive self-evaluation.  Individuals have a tendency to make upwards and downwards comparisons, meaning comparisons will be made with those perceived to be in better and worse circumstances.

Upward social comparisons can be utilized as a motivating factor, or as inspiration to improve.  However, individuals may either minimize or refrain from making comparisons if they are threatened or believe that their abilities are subpar.  Moreover, at times, people will alter or disregard information in attempts to preserve their self-esteem or to see themselves in a more positive light.

Social comparison theory impacts us on a daily basis.  As toddlers and preschoolers explore their environment, they are watchful of their peers and constantly assess what they are doing and playing with.  School aged children and teenagers consistently compare themselves to their classmates and peer group in attempts to evaluate their own intelligence, appearance, and popularity.  Adults measure themselves against others more in regards to prosperity, success, finance, and occupation.  Thus, individuals of all ages utilize social comparisons in order to better understand themselves, their self-worth, and how they fit into the larger world.

Social media provides a grand stage as it pertains to social comparison.  Individuals have more access than ever before and a plethora of opportunities to make social comparisons right from the privacy of their own home.  It is important to note that social comparison via social media should be used with some level of precaution, as we need to be mindful of the true objective of social comparison theory, to understand, evaluate, and improve ourselves.  When social comparison is done for the wrong reasons, we run the risk of self-deprecation, especially if we are only looking at upwards comparisons.  Instead of setting the proverbial bar too high and setting ourselves up for failure, we need to use social comparison theory as a springboard for motivation and improvement.

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Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy  facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.
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