Social Comparison

In 1954, Festinger suggested that individuals are driven to compare themselves to others as a means of obtaining information about oneself and the world during times of threat or ambiguity (i.e., stress). Although the patterns of findings are diverse and sometimes complex, most research in this field suggests that social comparison processes have important implications for psychological well-being. In fact, several researchers have proposed that social comparisons play a central role in the way in which people cope with stressful experiences. For example, social comparisons can help individuals evaluate their resources and provide information relevant to managing emotional reactions to stress. However, the underlying motivation and purpose that each individual has for engaging in this type of coping and the resultant psychological outcomes can be diverse.

In 1989, Wood described three classes of motiva tional factors that drive a person to engage in social comparisons: self-evaluation, self-improvement, and self-enhancement. All three purposes can be relevant to coping with stress and may aid the individual in striving toward an adaptive outcome. Self-evaluation motivations to engage in social comparison stem from an individual's desire to obtain information regarding his or her standing on a particular skill or attribute. Self-improvement motivations to engage in social comparison suggest that individuals are interested in deriving information regarding another's standing on a particular skill or attribute in order to improve their own standing on the same dimension. Self-enhancement motivations to engage in social comparison stem from a need to see oneself in a more positive manner; that is, the results of the social comparison are used to make one feel better about one's own standing on a particular skill or attribute relative to others.

When an individual seeks a social comparison target as a means of coping with an ambiguous or threatening situation, several options are available. One can select an individual who has a higher or more positive standing than oneself on the dimension in question (i.e., an "upward social comparison"). Alternatively, onecan select an individual who has a lower or more negative standing than oneself on the relevant dimension (i.e., a "downward social comparison"). Presumably, comparisons against others who differ from oneself produce distinctive and discriminating information that has immediate and practical implications for the individual when engaging in coping efforts.

In general, research suggests that when people engage in downward comparisons, they feel more positive and less negative about themselves than when they engage in upward comparisons. Individuals engaging in downward social comparisons because of self-enhancement motivations tend to experience reduced levels of negative affect and feel better about themselves in both field and experimental studies. For example, in their 1985 study of women coping with breast cancer, Wood and her colleagues found that downward comparisons appeared to help women feel better about how they were dealing with their illness by yielding positive evaluations relative to women who were not coping as effectively. However, research has also demonstrated that when individuals are motivated by self-improvement or self-evaluation needs, there is a clear preference for upward comparison information. Under these circumstances, comparisons

Coping with Stress may help determine what kinds of interventions or efforts are both possible and necessary to cope more effectively with a particular stressor.

Collins proposed in 1996 that the outcomes of social comparisons are not predetermined by the direction in which one makes a comparison. Instead, evidence supports the notion that both upward and downward comparisons can have both positive and negative impacts on psychological well-being. First, upward comparisons can generate negative psychological outcomes through a contrast effect (i.e., one feels inferior to the comparison target). Second, upward comparisons may also yield positive effects through the inspiration and hope they generate. These types of comparisons may be especially helpful for problem-solving activities, as they can provide constructive information that suggests specific coping strategies. Third, downward comparisons can lead to positive outcomes presumably because they allow one to focus on ways in which one is doing well relative to others. Such comparisons may be especially helpful in regulating negative emotions. Finally, downward comparisons can lead to negative outcomes from the fear that one will "sink" to the lower level of the comparison target at some future point in time. Such comparisons may have special significance for individuals coping with illness, where it is feasible that their disease will progress negatively. Given that both downward and upward comparisons contain both positive and negative information relevant to the self, the particular aspect the individual focuses on while coping will determine the valence of the outcome.

A growing number of moderating variables are being identified as important factors in determining the impact social comparison will have as a coping strategy during times of stress, threat, or ambiguity. For example, it appears that individuals with high self-esteem have a greater tendency to derive positive outcomes from either upward or downward social comparisons than individuals with low self-esteem. Other researchers have also noted the important role played by perceived control. Individuals with high degrees of perceived control over the dimension in question may be less likely to experience negative reactions to social comparisons in contrast to those with low levels of control. Individual differences in familiarity with a stressor may also moderate the process of social comparison. For example, an individual who has just discovered they have HIV (unfamiliar dimension) may select different comparison targets for coping than an individual who has been living with the illness for some time (familiar dimension). Presumably, the type of information one needs in order to adapt to threats will vary according to how long one has been dealing with the threat. In addition to individual differences, it appears that the situational context in which the social comparison process takes place is an important determinant of the impact of the comparison itself. For example, different contexts vary in terms of the potential social comparison targets they provide.

At times, individuals will actively self-select when to engage in social comparison and with whom they wish to compare themselves. However, as Collins noted, social comparisons can sometimes be forced on the individual. For example, researchers have found that someone who needs health care services for a serious condition may have no choice but to sit in a waiting room with other individuals who also have the same condition, making social comparisons unavoidable. Such comparisons most likely make it difficult for an individual to avoid the possibility that his or her own illness and condition could get worse. In addition, researchers have suggested that the impact of forced comparisons can be particularly aversive when the comparison target is someone with whom the individual is interdependent (e.g., close friend, co-worker). This suggests that individuals may sometimes have to cope with the stressful nature of the social comparison itself.

Regardless of whether or not one chooses to engage in social comparison, once the social comparison process is underway (i.e., target is compared against), there are some active strategies that individuals can use to maximize the probability of obtaining a positive outcome. First, peripheral dimensions can be used to moderate comparison outcomes. If a comparison produces an unfavorable outcome (e.g., an upward comparison that leaves one feeling inferior), one can always attribute the lower standing to differences between oneself and the target on other related variables (e.g., sex, ethnicity, duration of stressor). Alternatively, as previously discussed, individuals can actively distort information to maintain a more positive perception of reality.

In summary, social comparison processes provide valuable information that individuals can use for a variety of purposes when coping with stress, threat, or ambiguity. The target selected, the situation or con

Coping with Stress text in which the comparison is made, and the unique traits of both the individual and the comparison target have an impact on the outcome of the comparison process. As a result, social comparison may have a positive impact on well-being for particular individuals in certain situations, and a negative impact on well-being for other individuals in different situations. Research has demonstrated the relevance of social comparison to coping with a variety of stressors such as illness and marital problems.

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