Social Comparison Theory

What Is Social Comparison Theory?

Social comparison theory states that individuals determine their own social and personal worth based on how they stack up against others. People sometimes compare themselves to others as a way of fostering self-improvement, self-motivation, and a positive self-image. As a result, humans constantly evaluate themselves, and others, across domains such as attractiveness, wealth, intelligence, and success.

These evaluations can promote judgmental, biased, and overly competitive or superior attitudes. Most people have the social skills and impulse control to keep their standards for social comparison to themselves, and not to act on any envy or resentment spurred by comparison-making. But one's true feelings may manifest in other ways.

Social comparison theory was developed in 1954 by psychologist Leon Festinger. Subsequent research shows that people who regularly compare themselves to others often experience feelings of deep dissatisfaction, guilt, or remorse, and engage in destructive behaviors like lying or disordered eating.

Comparing Yourself to Others

People most often compare themselves to others who share similar attributes (e.g., age, gender, background, etc.). These comparisons can sometimes be healthy measures of development, such as a child reaching certain growth milestones at the same time as their peers.

However, many people make unreasonable comparisons to others who have achieved at unusually high levels, causing them a great deal of anxiety about their own progress in life. On most variables and traits, people are far more likely to compare "up" rather than "down," relative to their own standing; this is known as positional bias. The fascination with celebrity culture and the prevalence of carefully-manicured social-media feeds have only exacerbated concerns around social comparison, exposing people to endless potential comparisons, many of whom at least appear to be perfect.

Recent Posts