Have you ever heard the expression “comparisons are hateful? The reality is that there are many people who tend to constantly compare themselves with others. But Leon Festinger, a social psychologist, spoke about something similar in his theory of social comparison (1954).
In this article we will learn what this theory consists of, and how we compare ourselves to others in order to evaluate our own opinions, capacities and abilities.
Theory of social comparison: characteristics
The theory of social comparison (1954) was initially proposed by the social psychologist Leon Festinger, and establishes that people evaluate their own opinions, capacities and abilities by comparing them with those of others . It also seems that this is especially true in situations of uncertainty, in which it can be difficult to measure our ability objectively.
Thus, this theory is based on the belief that there is an impulse within individuals that motivates them to obtain rigorous self-evaluations.
Furthermore, the theory of social comparison tries to explain how social factors influence self-concept .
One of the most relevant hypotheses proposed by the theory of social comparison is the similarity hypothesis, according to which we prefer to compare ourselves with people similar to us , but it specifies three points:
1. In capacities
It establishes that we use a unidirectional upward impulse to compare ourselves with others; that is, when we evaluate our abilities, we compare ourselves with better people, because of the desire to improve .
2. In opinions
When it comes to evaluating our own opinions, we tend to compare ourselves with those who think differently; if, despite this, they agree with our position, we perceive a feeling of self-affirmation regarding our opinion . On the other hand, we experience hostility if we do not agree.
3. In anxious situations
In situations that generate anxiety, we tend to compare ourselves with people who are in the same situation as us, since that makes us feel better understood and allows these people to empathize with us .
For example, in an exam situation, we will probably compare ourselves to our peers who also have to take the same exam, since that will make us feel more understood than if we talk to our parents about a situation that causes them anxiety, for example.
Need for self-evaluation
To develop the theory of social comparison, L. Festinger took as his starting point the idea that people have a self-evaluation drive , that is, they need to constantly evaluate their opinions and their abilities.
Often, opinions and capacities cannot be assessed through empirical observations. Moreover, these are good or bad (or right/wrong) depending on who we compare ourselves to, i.e. depending on the agreement or similarity that occurs and the comparison criteria that we use.
The theory of social comparison also explains why we think differently about ourselves depending on the nature of the comparison we make, and its meaning for us.
The theory of social comparison starts from two premises for its elaboration:
On the one hand, the fact that evaluations of subjective opinions or abilities are stable , when a comparison can be made with others, whose opinions or abilities are judged to be similar to one’s own.
On the other hand, the second premise establishes that a person will be less attracted to situations in which others are very different from him/her , than to those in which others are similar to him/her, both in abilities and in opinions.
Impact on daily life
The theory of social comparison also has implications for the impact of the media and for the idea that people have of themselves.
Thus, phrases such as “comparisons are hateful” could partly explain some ideas of the theory, since if we compare ourselves with people who are better than us, we are more likely to feel worse than if we compare ourselves with people who are worse than us.
This last situation can increase our self-esteem, although in reality it does so in an artificial way, since a real improvement in self-esteem implies deeper changes and does not require comparison with anyone.
Extrapolating the mentioned phrase to other examples, we can think about the influence of the prototype model, which is based on an extremely thin woman; this can lead to important problems for the self-esteem of certain women, who even go so far as to develop eating disorders such as anorexia.
Similarly, the fact that prototypical male role models are strong, hyper-muscular men can also affect the self-esteem of men who do not look the same and who constantly compare themselves.
As already mentioned, we insist that self-esteem must be based more on a comparison with oneself than with others, so that it can be truly positive and satisfactory. In this sense, the objective to achieve a good degree of personal well-being is not to try to compare oneself with anyone, but to try to value the positive things about oneself.
Another Festinger Theory
The second theory of L. Festinger, also fundamental in social psychology, is the theory of cognitive dissonance . This theory states that a sense of dissonance is generated in us when our beliefs conflict with what we do.
The internal state of tension that is generated, motivates to eliminate such dissonance and to actively avoid situations and information that could increase it.
This theory can be related to the theory of social comparison in terms of ideas that clash with our self-concept and give us back a more negative image of ourselves.
- Hogg, M. (2010). Social psychology. Vaughan Graham M. Panamericana, Editorial: Panamericana.
- Morales, J.F. (2007). Social psychology. Editorial: S.A. MCgraw-Hill / Interamenicana de España.