Upward social comparison is the tendency to compare ourselves with those perceived to be better off than us.
For example, when we see a colleague working hard and managing all their tasks effectively, we might be inspired to do the same.
Social comparison is a universal phenomenon that is primarily done for self-evaluation, and the usual tendency is to compare upwards.
Various factors affect social comparisons, such as similarity, relevance, etc. We will discuss these later. First, let us talk about the concept in more detail and look at some examples.
Definition of Upward Social Comparison
E.A. Pomery defines upward social comparison as the process of:
“Comparing oneself along one or more dimensions with a real or imagined person.” (2012)
Social comparison is a universal phenomenon, and it was originally theorized by Leon Festinger in 1954. Festinger argued that all of us have a natural drive to gain accurate self-evaluation. To do so, we compare ourselves with others to define ourselves.
Later researchers added that social comparison is done for two other reasons as well: self-enhancement and self-improvement. The former refers to improving our feelings of self-worth while the latter is about gaining new skills to better ourselves.
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 Upward Social Comparison
- College Superstar: Upward social comparison often takes place in everyday surroundings like school or workplace, where they can have different impacts. Lockwood and his colleagues argued that attainability—whether or not we can achieve the status of the target plays a major role in social comparison (1997). For example, they studied how a college “superstar” (a graduating senior who was both academically and socially successful) was viewed by undergraduate students. They found out that freshmen students were inspired by these superstars, especially if they shared their major. In contrast, seniors (who did not have much time left in college) reacted defensively to the comparison and downplayed the superstar’s achievements.
- Dieting: Upward social comparison can inspire us to make a change, and Collins demonstrates this through his study of dieting individuals. He found out that those aiming to lose weight often engaged in upward social comparison, such as posting pictures of thinner people on their refrigerators. These pictures helped them in two ways: they served as a reminder of the individual’s current weight, and they provided them with a concrete goal to which they can aspire.
- Patients: While patients usually rely on downward social comparison, they sometimes also engage in upward social comparison. In their study of breast cancer patients, Taylor & Lobel found that upward comparisons can be uplifting for the patients (1989). Patients with deteriorating effects do not want to compare downwards, that is, to patients experiencing worse symptoms. Instead, they can become more hopeful when engaging in upward comparisons: when they see other patients doing better, they imagine themselves doing the same.
- Self-Improvement: While downward social comparisons can make us feel better about ourselves, upward social comparisons motivate us to improve ourselves & achieve more. Festinger saw self-evaluation as the primary motive of social comparison but recognized that self-improvement was another motive. This was linked with upward social comparison: we are more likely to learn new skills & gain inspiration from those who are doing better than us. For example, an athlete may get inspired by his excelling teammate and start training harder.
- Physical Appearance: We often make upward social comparisons when evaluating our physical appearance, and the influence of media plays a major role in this. Studies reveal that most women engage in upward social comparisons, usually comparing themselves with the unrealistically high standards presented in the media, such as being thin and flawless (Strahan et. al., 2006). In most cases, this leads to negative feelings. It also puts too much emphasis on diet culture and excessive exercising, which has led to many eating disorders. So, instead of being motivating, such upward comparisons can be harmful.
- Role Models: Role models help us imagine what we ultimately want to become, and through upward social comparisons, we can get inspired by them. This is precisely why children are provided with role models, which push them to become like their admired individuals. Role models are all the more significant for marginalized communities as they give hope to the entire group. For example, Naomi Osaka revealed that Apolo Ohno was her role model as he was the first half-Japanese athlete to gain acclaim. Today, Osaka is the best tennis player in the world and has become a role model for millions of others.
- Status Symbols: We often engage in upward social comparisons with status symbols, such as cars or houses. For example, a Mercedes-Benz car is usually seen as a status symbol in America, and you would be happy if you owned one. However, if your neighbor now bought an S-class (the highest class) Mercedes-Benz car, then you might be a little disappointed with your car. Similarly, we make comparisons with many other material possessions, which can affect our self-esteem and happiness.
- Relationships: Relationships are another area where we often make upward social comparisons. Films and novels have created many perfect images of romances, and we might often find our own lives/relationships falling short of those ideals. Even in real life, humans tend to compare their relationships with those of others; for example, we may look at a happy couple and think that they never fight. This can often make us dissatisfied with our relations. But in reality, no relationship is perfect.
- Job Performance: Upward social comparisons at the workplace can help us improve ourselves. For example, we may see a colleague managing all their tasks on time and get inspired to organize our work similarly. We may also get inspired to maintain a good work-life balance from someone. Festinger focused a lot on groups, discussing how members constantly compare themselves with other group members. We are interested in our status in the group (say our contribution to a work project) and our opinions (evaluating if others agree with our ideas).
- Social Media: Social media has made upward social comparisons a lot more prevalent as they constantly present us with “ideal” images. These can be related to wealth, beauty, or happiness. We are constantly measuring ourselves against these incredibly high standards, which can often lead to negative consequences. People only show the best versions of themselves on social media, and even comparisons with one’s peers can lead to self-pity. Moreover, the incessant desire for social comparison can lead to compulsive checking of social media websites.
Factors Influencing Social Comparison
Social comparison is affected by various factors, such as similarity, individual differences, etc.
- Similarity: Festinger argued that the best way to self-evaluate is to compare with someone perceived to be similar. An amateur musician would ideally compare himself to someone having a similar kind of experience, instead of targeting a professional musician (superior) or someone who has never played before (inferior). The greater the similarity, the more precise the evaluation; it will also give more confidence to the comparer about the conclusion.
- Relevance: Another important factor in social comparison is relevance. When we compare ourselves, we do it for things that matter to us. So, a student who values academic success will evaluate himself in that field instead of comparing himself with somebody’s athletic performance. For opinions also, relevance matters. If an issue is important to us, then we will compare our opinions with those of others. Otherwise, we most likely will not care.
- Competitiveness: The level of competitiveness of an individual (their social status & the context of evaluation) affects social comparison. Those having higher social status are more competitive because they have more to lose. Burleigh conducted a study involving a bonus point program, where students could get a higher grade based on chance (2013). Top students were more likely to object to this program as they had more to lose. So, with high status, there is an aversion to downward mobility.
- Individual Differences: Finally, although social comparison is a universal phenomenon, there are individual differences in the extent to which people compare. Self-conscious people compare more often and so do those who reflect on their thoughts and feelings. High comparers can easily imagine themselves in others’ shoes and have greater empathy. However, they are also more likely to have lower self-esteem, be more depressed, and have mood swings (Pomery).
Upward social comparison is the tendency to compare ourselves against those better off than us.
We usually make more upward comparisons, and they motivate us to improve ourselves. But, it can also be harmful at times, as in the case of physical appearance, which has been affected by unrealistic standards. Various factors like similarity and relevance influence social comparison.
Burleigh T. J.; Meegan D. V. (2013). “Keeping up with the Joneses affects perceptions of distributive justice“. Social Justice Research. Springer New York.
Collins, R. L. (1995). “For better or worse: The impact of upward social comparison on self-evaluations”. Psychological Bulletin. APA.
Festinger L (1954). “A theory of social comparison processes”. Human Relations. Sage.
Lockwood P and Kunda Z (1997). “Superstars and me: Predicting the impact of role models on the self”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. American Psychological Association.
Pomery, E. A.; Gibbons, F.X.; Stock M.L. (2012). “Social Comparison” in (ed.) V.S. Ramachandran’s Encylopedia of Human Behavior. Elsevier.
Strahan E. J.; Wilson A. E.; Cressman K. E.; Buote V. M. (2006). Comparing to perfection: How cultural norms for appearance affect social comparisons and self-image. Body Image. Elsevier.
Taylor, S. E.; Lobel, M. (1989). “Social comparison activity under threat: Downward evaluation and upward contacts”. Psychological Review. APA.