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Social-Comparison Theory: Upward vs. Downward

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  • 0:06 Social Comparison Theory
  • 2:11 Upward and Downward…
  • 4:33 Social Comparison Bias
  • 5:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

When people compare themselves to others in order to measure success, it is called self-comparison. In this lesson, we'll learn about two specific types of self-comparison: upward social comparison and downward social comparison.

Social Comparison Theory

How do you know when you're doing well? For example, if you compose a piano concerto, how do you know if it's the best concerto ever written, or if it's the worst?

Most of what we do in our everyday lives does not involve objective criteria for evaluation. In our example above, there is no right or wrong answer to how good your concerto is. You cannot hold up a yardstick to your concerto and say, 'It is this long and that wide.' And even if you could, how long and how wide marks success? How do you measure how successful you are in a world where there are no objective answers?

Social psychologists have one answer. Social comparison theory states that in the absence of objective measures for self-evaluation, we compare ourselves to others to find out how we're doing. Going back to our example above, the measure for how good your concerto is depends on comparison to other concertos. Does it hold up to Mozart's concertos? Is it better than most other modern concertos?

The answers to those questions will help you figure out whether or not your concerto is good. By comparing yourself, and your concerto, to others, you can get an idea of how good (or how bad) it is. Notice that even if there is an objective measure for a task, there still is not an objective measure for success most of the time. For example, a baseball player's home runs can be counted. We can say that he hit 39 home runs last season.

But even though there's an objective measure for that task - the 39 home runs - that doesn't mean much if we also don't have others to compare that to. We have to know that the average home runs per player in Major League Baseball in a year is about 16, and that the single-season home run record in Major League Baseball is 73. Looking at what others have done tells us that 39 home runs is much better than average, but far short of record-breaking.

Upward and Downward Comparisons

There are essentially two types of comparisons that people make: upward comparisons, or comparing ourselves to others who are better than we are, and downward comparisons, or comparing ourselves to those who are not as proficient as we are at a given task.

Let's go back to the home run scenario above. If a baseball player, let's call him Josh, hit 39 home runs last season, he has two options. He can compare himself to Barry Bonds and say, 'Well, Bonds hit 73 home runs in one season. I'm nowhere near that level.' This comparison is an upward comparison, because Josh is comparing himself to someone who is more proficient than he is at hitting home runs.

Or, he can compare himself to someone who hit only a few home runs, or to the average for baseball. Then he might say, 'Well, most hitters in the majors hit about 16 home runs in a season, so I'm doing pretty well.' This is a downward comparison, since he's comparing his success to others who aren't as good as him at hitting home runs.

Both upward and downward comparisons have benefits and drawbacks. Downward social comparisons can boost self-esteem. That makes sense; if Josh is comparing himself to his teammate who only hit 14 home runs last season, he's going to feel pretty good about himself. And some studies have shown that breast cancer patients look at others whose condition is worse than theirs as a coping mechanism. If someone's cancer is worse, they feel like their situation isn't so bad.

However, downward social comparison can make some people not try as hard if they feel like they are way out in front. For example, if Josh compares himself to his teammate who hit 14 home runs, he might decide that his 39 home runs are good enough. As a result, he might never know how many home runs he could hit if he really pushed himself to do better.

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