Downward social comparison occurs when people compare themselves with those (seemingly) worse off than them.
For example, when a student performs poorly on a test, he may compare himself to someone who has failed, finding some relief.
Downward social comparison can help us enhance our self-esteem and boost our confidence in various scenarios. However, it can also have negative consequences, such as making us arrogant or hostile towards others. Ultimately, social comparison is a natural tendency and social bias of humans.
Definition of Downward Social Comparison
E.A. Pomery defines downward social comparison in the following way:
“According to the theory, people who compare with others who are thought to be faring worse experience an improvement in their mood (in other words, their subjective well-being increases)” (2012).
She adds that people who feel threatened (or have low self-esteem) are most likely to engage in downward comparison. They’re especially likely to engage in this behavior when there is no direct way to confront the threat’s source. It is an emotional coping technique that can help us feel better in the short term.
However, Pomery points out that it may not be the best strategy in the long term. The concept of downward social comparison was first introduced by T.A. Wills in 1981. According to Wills, we as humans are ambivalent about downward comparisons.
On the one hand, we do not like to find joy in another person’s misfortune and feel guilty.
However, we also realize that this can have emotional benefits (say, boosting our confidence).
Wills’ work on downward social comparison is an addition to the social comparison theory, which was originally developed by Leon Festinger in 1954. We will discuss more about this later.
Downward vs Upward Social Comparison
Downward and upward social comparison are in many senses opposite ways of evaluating oneself against others in society:
- Downward social comparison involves comparing those you perceive to be in a worse position or inferior in some way. This helps us to feel better about ourselves comparatively, even when we’re in a bad position.
- Upward social comparison is when we compare ourselves to people who are better off than us, such as students who get better grades, or even our mentors. One huge benefit of this is that we will continually be seeking ways to improve so we can become the best, but it can also lead to a sense that you’re never enough because there is always someone above us to compare ourselves to.
|Downward Social Comparison||Upward Social Comparison|
|Definition||Comparing oneself to those perceived as worse off or inferior.||Comparing oneself to those perceived as better off or superior.|
|Purpose||Enhances self-esteem and satisfaction.||Can lead to motivation and self-improvement.|
|Emotional Effect||Generally positive: increased self-esteem, satisfaction.||Can be both positive (motivation, inspiration) and negative (feelings of inadequacy, dissatisfaction).|
|Contextual Usage||Often used in situations where individuals are feeling low or uncertain about their abilities or status.||Often used in situations where individuals are striving for self-improvement or advancement.|
|Potential Risk||Might lead to complacency and hinder personal growth if used excessively.||Can lead to feelings of inadequacy, envy, or lower self-esteem if the comparison target is unreachable.|
Examples of Downward Social Comparison
- Patients: Patients often engage in downward social comparison, which can have various impacts. In their study of breast cancer patients, Wood et. al. discovered that the majority of them compared themselves with those worse off than them (1985). While downward social comparison often brings relief, in this particular case, the researchers found that the patients were threatened to see less fortunate patients. This is because those whose illness had advanced were a reminder that their own health could deteriorate further. Other studies, such as that of Ashby, also conclude that patients usually compare downward (2004).
- Students: When students are not performing well academically, they may resort to downward social comparison as a coping strategy. While top students usually engage in upward social comparison, those performing poorly often do the opposite. When they get a poor grade, they are likely to compare themselves to someone worse off (say someone who failed) and be relieved. We can also look at Gibbons’ concept of “downward shift” here. When one cannot engage in downward comparison (like the student who got the lowest grade in class), they lower their preferred target. So, instead of targeting the best student, they will choose someone who is only doing okay.
- Humor: Although good comedians usually try to avoid “punching low”, humor can sometimes target those “below” us in a harsh way. Wills argued that there were two kinds of downward social comparison: active and passive. The latter is when we learn about those worse off than us and use that information to improve our well-being. Jn contrast, active downward comparison involves derogating the target or even physically harming them. This lowers their status and makes them appear inferior. Wills said that this was often done through humor: we often put down people jokingly and it serves to boost our own status in comparison.
- Relationships: In relationships, downward social comparison can make people more grateful. For all of us, movies and books have created very high expectations about love. However, instead of judging against fictional characters, it is much easier to compare ourselves with those around us. Seeing other couples having problems reminds us that all human relationships are quite difficult, which is why we should be grateful for those who love us. At the same time, it is important for couples to look upward, so that they can grow together.
- Abilities: Downward social comparison with others can make us more confident about our abilities. For example, if we beat our colleagues in a friendly race, it might inspire us to take part in bigger athletic events. Similarly, on a reality TV show or on the internet, we might see someone sing poorly, and this may make us more confident in our own ability. In small everyday situations such as these, downward social comparisons serve as a self-enhancing mechanism that helps us become more confident.
- Loss: Loss of any kind—whether emotional, physical, or financial—often becomes more bearable through social comparison. For example, during the recent pandemic, many people lost their businesses/jobs and struggled to make ends meet. However, they would have at least found consolation in the fact that they and their families are safe. Within the context of such large-scale crises, reflecting on the losses suffered by everyone can make us grateful for what we still have.
- Job Performance: Downward social comparison at the workplace can push us to improve, although it can have negative consequences too. For example, at the workplace, we might often compare ourselves with others. Suppose a colleague is unable to manage all of his tasks. This might remind us to plan our work in a better manner so that we don’t fall into a similar situation. However, relying too much on downward comparison can make us arrogant and less empathetic toward our colleagues (Wood, 2002). This can make collaboration more difficult, creating a hostile environment.
- Physical Appearance: Downward social comparison is often done with regard to physical appearance, which can sometimes be explicitly insulting. Social media has created many false images of the “ideal” life, including the perfect body. While this often leads to upward social comparison, people also resort to downward social comparison at times. For example, a student may insult a classmate about their weight. Wills sees this as a self-enhancing mechanism: when we are feeling threatened (say insecure about our own appearance), we implicitly or explicitly engage in downward comparison to improve our well-being.
- Financial Status: People often engage in downward social comparison when looking at financial status, especially in times of economic crises. Our world has recently been going through a global recession, and countless individuals have lost their jobs (even in reputed companies) due to layoffs. During such times, most of us are not likely to engage in upward comparison and be competitive. Instead, it’s much more common to be grateful that we have kept our jobs and can support our families.
Social Comparison Theory – Festinger
The concept of downward social comparison was Wills’ addition to Leon Festinger’s social comparison theory.
So let’s talk for a moment about social comparison theory.
Festinger believed that every individual has a natural drive to gain an accurate self-evaluation (1954). In order to achieve this, we compare ourselves with others and try to define ourselves. So, social comparison, according to Festinger, is a form of self-assessment.
Festinger proposed nine theses in his theory. While this article won’t explore all, one key point is that he thought that people first try to evaluate themselves with objective standards, but when these are not present, they compare themselves with others.
Some points he had about the sorts of comparisons we make include:
- We are more likely to compare ourselves to people who are similar to us
- We mostly compare upwards in the case of abilities, etc.
Ultimately, Festinger’s point is that comparisons allow us to evaluate ourselves.
Later researchers built upon Festinger’s work and argued that there are actually three reasons behind social comparisons:
- Self-enhancement (Gibbons & Buunk, 1999).
Downward social comparison is the tendency to compare ourselves against those who we feel are worse off than us.
As Festinger argues, all of us have a natural tendency to evaluate who we are, and social comparison allows us to achieve this. Other scholars have added have social comparison can also lead to self-enhancement, although it can also have negative consequences.
Ashby, T. W., & Mendoza, D. (2004). “Social comparison and subjective well-being”. In C. D. Spielberger (Ed.), Encyclopedia of applied psychology. New York: Elsevier Science & Technology.
Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human relations, 7(2), 117-140.
Gibbons, F. X., & Buunk, B. P. (1999). Individual differences in social comparison: development of a scale of social comparison orientation. Journal of personality and social psychology, 76(1), 129. Doi: https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.52
Pomery, E.A. (2012). Encyclopedia of Human Behavior. London: Elsevier.
Wills, T. A. (1981). Downward comparison principles in social psychology. Psychological bulletin, 90(2), 245. doi: https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/0033-2909.90.2.245
Wood, J. V., Taylor, S. E., & Lichtman, R. R. (1985). Social comparison in adjustment to breast cancer. Journal of personality and social psychology, 49(5), 1169. Doi: https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2069
Wood, J. V., Michela, J. L., & Girotto, V. (2000). “Social comparison in everyday life”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. APA