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Social comparison can be defined as the way people compare themselves to others in order to engage in self-evaluation or to achieve some form of self-improvement (Suls, Martin, and Wheeler, 2002). In examining the main concepts regarding social comparison, the paper will discuss self-evaluation, the proxy and triadic models, self-enhancement, and assimilation and contrast. The evolution of findings, methodology, and theorizing within the area of social comparison since the publication of Festingers theory will then be discussed. Finally the interaction between social comparison and affect will be described.
Main concepts within social comparison literature
Since some of the main concepts will be described in subsequent sections, they will not be repeated in this part of the paper. These include non-conscious comparison, domains of comparison and similarity of standard, all of which are later explained.
Festingers original theory (1954, cited in Suls, Martin, and Wheeler, 2002) assumed that people look to others who they see as similar to themselves in order to evaluate their own aptitudes and opinions. He described this pattern of behaviour as attending to the self-evaluation motive. Recent work has shown that processes within social comparison differ based on the type of question that is used to attain the self evaluation. The proxy model and triadic model explain these different processes by looking at the ways in which opinions and abilities are evaluated.
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The proxy model was developed by Wheeler, Martin, & Suls (1997, cited in Suls et al., 2002). It concerns how social comparison is used to gauge a person¿½s own ability to perform new tasks. The model suggests that an individual can predict their performance on a new task by looking at the performance of an experienced other (known as a proxy) on this task (Suls et al., 2002). This experienced other must have previously performed similarly to the individual on a relevant task. It must be known that the proxy gave their best endeavour when completing the previous task (Suls et al., 2002). For example, if an individual wants to pursue a university education yet is unsure if they are capable of doing well, they can look at an individual who they know exerted maximal effort and received similar grades to them in the Leaving Certificate exams. Then they must look at this proxy¿½s performance at university and infer that this is the level of achievement they are also capable of. On the other hand, if the individual compares with someone who received very different grades in the Leaving Certificate and it was unknown how much effort they put in to this task, the comparison will not generate a clear sense of how the individual is likely to perform at university.
The Triadic Model
Suls, Martin, & Wheeler (2000, cited in Suls et al., 2002) proposed that¿½the social comparison of opinion should be thought about in three different terms: preference assessment, belief assessment,¿½and preference prediction.¿½ With regard to current preference assessment the model puts forward the idea that people who share similar related traits will be most significant for evaluation of such preferences (Suls et al., 2002). When people are evaluating beliefs, individuals possessing expertise on a topic area are usually used for comparison. However it is not enough to merely possess expertise; this expert must be similar to the individual in some ways (Suls et al., 2002). With regard preference prediction (¿½Will I like X?¿½), an individual bases their prediction of liking on a proxy who shared similar relevant likes and dislikes in the past (Suls et al., 2002). For example if an individual wants to know whether or not they will enjoy a film, it is useful for them to compare with an individual who has typically shared a similar taste in films in the past.
Research has demonstrated that when individuals engage in comparison with people who are dissimilar to them, such comparison may have a self-enhancement function. Wills’s (1981) downward-comparison theory suggested that individuals who feel they are in a bad situation are likely to compare with people they see as worse off or more threatened than they are. For example cancer patients make compare themselves to those with more severe cases so that they may think ¿½it could be worse, someone is worse off than I am¿½. This realisation serves to heighten the individual¿½s well-being (Suls et al., 2002). The idea that downward comparison increased subjective well-being was accompanied by the belief that upward comparison leads to a decrease in subjective well-being. However, other research has shown that people deliberately engage in comparisons with those superior to them. Wood (1989, cited in Suls et al., 2002) suggested that this is due to a motive of self-improvement. Upward comparison can impart inspiration (¿½I can also achieve what he has achieved¿½).
Assimilation and contrast
Assimilation is when an evaluation obtained from comparison is displaced toward the target. This occurs when the individual engaging in comparison views the target as being similar to themselves and therefore they believe that they can attain similar achievements to those attained by the target (Suls et al., 2002). Assimilation is likely to occur when the individual perceives a connection between him/herself and the target (Suls et al., 2002). It is also influenced by whether or not the individual believes the target shares certain characteristics with them (Suls et al., 2002).
Contrast occurs during social comparison when the individual engaging in comparison perceives the target as being different to themselves or, in some cases, they see the target are possessing extreme versions of self-relevant traits (Suls et al., 2002). For example, if an individual perceives himself to be athletic he will view Michael Jordan as possessing a similar trait in an extreme form. In this case the individual¿½s evaluation is displaced away from the target
Advances since the establishment of Festinger¿½s theory
There has been much advancement in social comparison findings, methodology, and theorizing since Festinger¿½s theory was first published in 1954. His theory has been invaluable in that it sparked the initial interest in the subject of social comparison. Yet, today, cognitive social psychology has advanced to exceed the original theoretical boundaries and reveal the failure of this theory to deal with the complexity of comparison as we now know it.
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While Festinger¿½s work gives the impression that social comparisons are conscious mental processes that individuals can choose to carry out, more recent work has shown that they may sometimes be automatic non-conscious processes. The results of a study by Gilbert and Giesler (1995) endorse this idea by showing how social comparisons may be unintended spontaneous responses to the behaviour of others. Comparisons may transpire in spite of an individual¿½s perception that comparison with the given standard is not appropriate.
Traditionally social comparison theory deduced that individuals select standards which hold the most relevant information for comparison. Since we are constantly bombarded with opportunities for comparison, we can afford to be picky about whom we compare ourselves to. Yet recent studies have shown that this is not always true. Comparisons can be so natural and impulsive that, not only does the individual not engage in deliberate standard selection, they may even remain unaware that they have been exposed to a standard (Mussweiller, Ruter, and Epstude, 2004). Methodology has advanced to include priming subjects with subliminal standards on order to investigate this phenomenon.
Even when comparisons are conscious, people may not always choose to compare themselves to a standard similar to themselves. This idea is in direct contrast to Festinger¿½s (1954a, cited in Mussweiller et al., 2004) classical conception that people persist in judging their own status by comparing themselves to a similar standard.
The areas within with people are thought to compare themselves to others, which originally just comprised opinions and abilities, have expanded to include realms such as emotions and values (Kruglanski and Mayseless, 1990). Also it has been proposed that people do not always compare within a specific realm, but that they use comparison to form a general self-evaluation (Singer, 1966, cited in Kruglanski and Mayeseless, 1990).
Interaction between affect and social comparison
The interaction between affect and social comparison is two-way. The effect of affect on social comparison will first be examined. Two opposing theories are used to predict this effect. Wills¿½ downward comparison theory (1981) speculates that the experience of negative affect such as unhappiness will result in a downward comparison. According to this theory, negative affect results in a drive to improve one¿½s emotional state and that this improvement is achieved by comparing oneself to somebody worse off. On the other hand motivational theory proposes that despair actually produces further negative self-evaluations (Forgas et al., 1990, cited in Wheeler and Miyake, 1992). If an individual thinks of themselves in a negative, inferior manner, they will be more likely to view others as being superior to them, which results in upward comparisons being made. A study by Wheeler and Miyake (1992) produced results which supported motivation theories explanation, in that participants engaged in upward comparison when they were experiencing negative emotions and downward comparison when they were experiencing positive emotions.
In examining the opposite effect of social comparison on affect, Wheeler and Miyake¿½s (1992) results demonstrated that after upward comparison more negative affect was reported. Subsequent to engaging in downward comparison subjects conveyed more positive emotions. The same was true of same-level comparisons; when people compared themselves to similar others they experienced positive affect. These results can be puzzling since it has been observed that people typically choose to make upward comparisons even though such comparisons are associated with negative affect. People are particularly inclined to compare upward when they have a motive of goal achievement (Wheeler, 1966, cited in Wheeler and Miyake, 1992). Yet self-enhancement and motivation also have a role to play here. Individuals may chose to make comparisons that will allow self-improvement regardless of the temporary affective outcomes such a comparison has (Wheeler and Miyake, 1992).
To conclude, social comparison theory provides us with a useful explanation for observing the ways in which individuals evaluate and improve themselves. The theory has evolved steadily over the last 50 years since Festinger first developed it. The recognition of non-conscious comparison and the non-selective nature of standard selection have revolutionised the theory and led to great advances in research. The relationship between social comparison and affect has also been further explored, with research supporting motivational theory¿½s account of upward and downward comparison¿½s affective consequences.
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