Social Comparison is a well-established topic in psychology literature, where its complex positives and negatives have been widely debated. But do we really need to engage in it and will it help us in the long term?
Comparing ourselves to others is one of many strategies used in the process of coping with threats, building resilience and establishing our identity (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Buunk, Ybema, Gibbons & Ipenburg, 2001).
The evaluation of the self against social environments is perhaps an unavoidable human trait, and provides information about an individual’s current situation (Wehmeyer, 2013).
Are there other, better ways we can do this?
Downward Social Comparison
“At least I didn’t embarrass myself in front of everyone like that girl”
Individuals preferentially compare themselves with those who are worse off or less competent in an effort to boost their own well being.
This is called ‘Downward Social Comparison’ (Buunk, Ybema, Gibbons & Ipenburg, 2001;Carmona, Buunk, Peiro, Rodriguez, & Bravo, 2006).
Quite often people attempt to alleviate uncomfortable feelings by saying, “It could be worse, right?”
There has been strong focus on the process of contrasting ourselves to others, and how it can promote self-enhancement and self-protection (Wayment & Bauer, 2008).
This strategy makes us feel better about ourselves and can be comforting, but it has been said to provide only momentary relief, and is not a long-term solution (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Wehmeyer, 2013).
There are two types of coping styles:
- Palliative (indirect/avoidant)
- Direct (problem solving/practical)
Downward social comparison has been categorized as palliative, and involves dealing with distress indirectly by coasting through those situations with no direct acknowledgment or attempt to solve them.
Downward social comparison has been found to have a strong relationship with burnout or emotional exhaustion, due to its short-term nature (Carmona, Buunk, Peiro, Rodriguez, & Bravo, 2006;Buunk, Ybema, Gibbons & Ipenburg, 2001).
A Preferred Approach
Wayment and Bauer (2008) raised the notion that literature has perhaps oversimplified the concept of downward social comparison, when in fact it has many dimensions and perspectives.
The Identification-Contrast Model outlines that social comparison can be seen in a positive or negative way depending on whether individuals identify with or contrast themselves against other people (Buunk, Ybema, Gibbons, & Ipenburg, 2001;Carmona, Buunk, Peiro, Rodriguez, & Bravo, 2006).
These two reactions to downward social comparison are namely contrast or assimilation.
Contrast refers to heightened self-esteem after attaining information about a less fortunate other and distancing or perhaps ‘looking down’ on them (as mentioned earlier).
Assimilation however, is when an individual can identify the similarities between the self and other (Wayment & Bauer, 2008). Identifying with others can lead to a movement away from self-preoccupation and the concept of ‘separate self’ (Wayment & Bauer, 2008). It can also bring about compassion and positive inter-personal relationships.
Perceived similarity with less fortunate others can heighten the sense of vulnerability. Individuals have reported that when experiencing this situation, they feel more interpersonal affection and greater affinity towards other people (Wayment & Bauer, 2008).
Strong connections with other human beings can be a powerful human motivator, resulting in many positive effects. Identifying similarities between oneself and a less fortunate other could be daunting and pull on the heartstrings, while it hits close to home.
However, if individuals were to focus more on the common bond and shared connection of vulnerability, it could lead to heightened compassion, helping behaviors, and a sense of comradeship (Wayment & Bauer, 2008).
Upward Social Comparison
“He is so much happier and more successful than me”
Many of us have experienced the process of comparing ourselves to others who are better off or more ‘successful’ than ourselves.
This comparison style very common, and fosters feelings of helplessness, jealousy, and inferiority, which can jeopardize our identity (Carmona, Buunk, Peiro, Rodriguez, & Bravo, 2006).
Persistence in this upward social comparison has been found to lead to higher levels of burnout and defeat (Carmona, Buunk, Peiro, Rodriguez, & Bravo, 2006).
Similar to downward social comparison, it falls under the umbrella of palliative coping styles, as it serves as an indirect, inactive coping strategy (Ybema, Gibbons & Ipenburg, 2001).
However, Jordan et al. (2011) made a noteworthy point that individuals only really have the opportunity to observe and make judgments of other people when in social settings.
Research has shown that people in a social scene experience and display a higher amount of positive emotions and suppress negative emotions which may be more frequent in a solitary situation (Jordan et al., 2011).
There is a lot of research in support of people possessing a misconception that others have more enjoyable and emotionally fulfilling lives than themselves (Jordan et al., 2011; Dunning, Heath, & Suls, 2004; Taylor & Brown, 1988.
However, unless you are a fly on the wall, how can you know what people are feeling on the inside of their everyday lives?
A Preferred Approach
The Identification-Contrast Model, in relation to upward assimilation, states that a powerful tool to personal development and coping is identifying similarities between individuals and the so called ‘better off’ others. (Buunk, Ybema, Gibbons and Ipenburg, 2001; Carmona, Buunk, Peiro, Rodriguez, & Bravo, 2006).
“Identifying common elements between the self and the ‘better-offs’ enables individuals to view their situations differently as they come to the conclusion that they are capable of mastering their difficult situations by building upon the common strengths they have, and construct positive change.”
This strategy is a direct, problem solving coping style as opposed to palliative (Carmona, Buunk, Peiro, Rodriguez, & Bravo, 2006).
Upward assimilation facilitates direct task-oriented strategies through hope, inspiration and motivation.
But should we really be comparing ourselves to others?
There is another approach we could make in attempt to cope with a difficult situation which illuminates the idea that we may not need social comparison at all….
A grateful outlook on one’s own unique life has been found to result in peace of mind, happiness, physical health and satisfying personal relationships (Emmons & McCollough, 2003).
It has been a form of coping response present throughout history in many religions, and an important and desirable aspect of the human mind.
The 2003 study by Emmons and McCollough acknowledged the benefits of gratitude and investigated how one can pursue a grateful outlook. They compared three groups of people who were allocated different tasks.
The tasks included; completing a daily gratitude diary, comparing him or herself to less fortunate others (downward social comparison) and focusing on negative daily hassles.
They found that the gratitude diary group reported significantly higher levels of determination, energy, enthusiasm, joy and pro-social behavior in comparison to the downward social comparison group.
Concluding that although the comparison to oneself against less fortunate others seems beneficial on the surface, it was not recommended as a direct route to gratitude and thankfulness, as it provides only a momentary, short term appraisal with no deep personal source.
“Cherishing and savoring the positives in life is a more powerful, stable and direct strategy in coping, as it focuses solely on the self, with the absence of comparison to others” (Emmons & McCollough, 2003).
The Take Home Message
Conflicting literature about upward and downward social comparison leads to the interpretation that this topic is not simply ‘black and white’ and there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer.
People are incomparable, and it is crucial to mindfully observe the comparisons we formulate in our heads and remember that every one of us is unique our own way regarding personalities, strengths, weaknesses and abilities.
“A flower does not think of competing to the flower next to it. It just blooms.”
― Zen Shin
About the Author
Justine Curwen is currently a third year psychology student at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. This piece is a version of a research proposal she wrote during the Positive Psychology course at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. This course fueled her passion for concepts such as self-compassion, positive mindsets, and mindfulness practice. She intends on pursuing these interests further in her postgraduate studies.
Buunk, B.P., Ybema, J.F., Gibbons, F.X., & Ipenburg, M.L. (2001). The affective consequences of social comparison as related to professional burnout and social comparison orientation. European Journal of Social Psychology, 31, 337-351
Carmona, C., Buuna, B.P., Peiro, J.M., Rodriguez, I., & Bravo, M.J. (2006). Do social comparison and coping styles play a role in the development of burnout? Cross-sectional and longitudinal findings. Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, 79, 85-99
Dunning, D., Heath, C., & Suls, J. M. (2004). Flawed self-assessment: Implications for health, education, and the workplace. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5, 69-106.
Emmons, R., & McCullough, M. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84 (2) 377-389
Jordan, A.H., Monin, B., Dweck C.S., Lorett, B.J., John, O.P., & Gross, J.J. (2011) Misery has more company than people think: Underestimating the prevalence of others’ negative emotions. Personal and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37 (2), 120-135
Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological Bulletin, 103,193-210.
Wayment, H.A., & Bauer, J.J. (2008) Transcending self-interest: Psychological explorations of the quiet ego. Washington: American Psychological Association.
Wehmeyer, M.L. (2013). The oxford handbook of positive psychology and disability. New York: Oxford University Press.