Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Social comparison and motivation

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Motivation and social comparison:
What does social comparison show about a persons motivation?
Figure 1.

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Social comparison is a constant experience that occurs throughout each individual's life. A person may view a [grammar?] another as having more or better than what they personally have, whether it be tangible or intangible, and constantly compare their existence with those that hold a strong influence in their lives. But what is it that really taints the reality of the other person's actual life? Is it the perspective that favors ideals and not reality, or is the grass really greener on the other side?

‘Social comparison is when a person evaluates their own personal opinions and compares them with the opinions and abilities of other individuals’ (Festinger, 1954). For people to feel connected, supported, and the all important comforting notion that the ‘social norm’ (what most other people follow and support) is being followed, individuals need to affirm their opinions and abilities with others[factual?]. Due to different environments having their own ‘version’ of ‘social norms’ there is the possibility for several of these ‘norms’ to exist which do not align with one another.

Maslow's Hierarchy of needs is one indicator that Festinger's theory of social comparison is experienced and employed constantly for people to feel connected to and valued by other individuals. Without this connection or want to strive for the 'better self', individuals (according to Maslow) are unable to obtain personal goals concerning love and belonging and self-esteem and therefore unable to achieve life's full potential (Lester, 2013).

Festinger's Social Comparison Theory[edit | edit source]

Leon Festinger proposed the theory of social comparison in 1954 which suggested that ‘there is an internal drive within all people to evaluate themselves (opinions and abilities) based on external factors, usually other individuals or toward their physical reality’ (Buckingham, Zell & Schurtz, 2012). People constantly compare themselves to others which in turn affects that individual’s cognition and behaviour (Buckingham et. al., 2012). Studies have suggested that the most affective forms of social comparison are with those the individual is closest to including peers (Buckingham et. al., 2012). These comparisons of others ‘appear to be obtainable and realistic therefore making it possible for the individual to idealise what the other person has’ and potentially motivate themselves to achieve the wanted goal (Buckingham et. al., 2012).

Upon expansion of this theory, Festinger investigated situations including social communication, group dynamics, the autokinetic effect, compliant behaviour, social groups and personal level of aspiration (Buckingham et. al., 2012). Following this presumption of social interaction affecting personal motivation Festinger (1954) proposed nine hypotheses:

  1. ‘Within humans, there is a constant drive for people to evaluate their personal opinions and abilities;
  2. If objective, non-social comparisons are not accessible, individual’s will evaluate themselves based on those around them. Where there is no comparison available, ‘subjective evaluations of opinions and abilities are unstable.’;
  3. When a person’s abilities and opinions differ greatly the tendency to compare oneself with another specific person decreases. Individuals are more likely to choose perceived similar comparisons. If this option is not available the individual is unable to subjectively evaluate their own abilities or opinions;
  4. A unidirectional drive upward is not displayed concerning opinions but can be seen in the case of abilities;
  5. There exists non-social restraints which generates a difficulty to change an individual’s ability but these restraints do not exist for opinions;
  6. Ceasing comparison with others within a group generates hostility and/or derogation that the ability to compare oneself to others within the groups becomes too difficult to maintain and leads to that person being rejected from that group;
  7. The pressure of uniformity rises when factors of importance within a group increases (concerning opinion or ability) when being compared with another group of people;
  8. Persons who have opposing beliefs from one’s own opinion or ability would be perceived as different and the tendency to narrow the range of comparability becomes stronger; and
  9. Where there is a range of opinion or ability in a group, the relative strength of the pressures toward uniformity will be different for those who are close to the group’s majority agreed to ideal/theory than those who are distant from the majority. Those closer, have a stronger tendency to change the positions of others and have a much weaker tendency to change their own position in comparison to those more distant from the majority agreed ideal/theory of the group’ (Festinger, 1954).

Although Fesitnger's theory was based predominantly on his personal research he did utilise information obtained through colleagues. This content focused on on 'social communication, group dynamics, the autokinetic effect, compliant behavior, social groups, and level of aspiration' (Festinger 1954).

Social comparison and how it affects an individual's perspective[edit | edit source]

Figure 3.

'Studies undertaken suggest that individual's employ social comparisons to facilitate other purposes including:

Social comparisons serve a great purpose in an individual's everyday life and are employed constantly to serve as supplement many or all of the above mentioned factors that can lead to fulfilling one's life potential' (White et. al. 2006).

Research appears to be growing in the field to understand the motivation of social comparison. Motivation provides insight to a greater understanding of what kinds of affect social comparisons hold over individual's lives as people are constantly rating themselves with those around them. Social comparison motivations or 'motives' include self-evaluation, self-enhancement, and upward and downward social comparison' (Tigges, 2009). As this theory has been continually reviewed and researched, Festinger's original theory has been altered, but many of the fundamental aspects remain. Specifically, the suggestion that social comparisons are comparative judgments governed by the general process that applies to all judgments made by individuals and that they are a frequent occurrance in everyday life (Kruglanski & Mayseless, 1990)[grammar?].

'People constantly utilise social comparisons in order to obtain constant feedback on how their abilities and opinions compare with those around them. This serves an individual's need to aid in the management of coping strategies and negative affect, increase self-enhancement and affiliate upward' (White et. al. 2006).

Self-evaluation[edit | edit source]

Self-evaluation is one of the functions of social comparison that focuses on how an individual engages with others. It is demonstrated through the ‘evaluation or judgement of the individual’s personal worth based on their strengths and weaknesses’ (Kelnowski, 1995). This involves ‘self-observation, self-judgement and self-reaction’ (Ross et. al., 2002). These judgements or evaluations, are employed to motivate an individual in ‘improving personal learning outcomes’ (Kelnowski, 1995). People tend to compare themselves with those similar to them by choice as they identify with similar distinctive characteristics. This does not mean that all self-evaluations are unbiased as comparing oneself with similar individuals can generate a skewed idea of what is the ‘social norm’ which can have either positive or negative consequences. ‘Core Self-evaluations (CSE) is classed as ‘bottom-line evaluations’ that people hold concerning their personal self. CSE’s are a higher order construct that has four underlying traits which influence an individual’s social comparison which include: self-esteem, generalised self-efficacy, locus of control and emotional stability’ (Lim & Tai, 2014)

Self-enhancement[edit | edit source]

To improve a positive view on one’s sense of self, individuals may also look toward self-enhancement (Corcoran, Crusius, and Mussweiler, 2011). This is where an individual’s focus is aimed predominantly on the elaboration of positive information concerning themselves (Tsai, Lau, Niles, Coello, Liebernam, Ko, Hur & Stanton, 2014). By focussing on only positive aspects, motivation for an individual to strive for wanted goals is heightened. This links with downward social comparison as people want to increase their positive ‘self-view, utilising favourable comparisons’ (Corcoran et. al., 2011). This suggests that individuals would be unlikely to compare themselves with others of which their abilities within a certain field are not as effective as another due to the wanting to maintain a positive self-view. It is suggested that self-enhancement is a more Westernised factor but can be implemented in a universal capacity, as Eastern cultures are based on a collectivist model where individuals identify as a group and not singularly, if considerations were taken into account (Church, Katigbak, Arias, Rincon, Vergas-Flores, Ibanez-Reyes, Wang, Alcarez, Wang & Ortiz, 2014). For example, the Western focus would be on personal self-enhancement (effectiveness or dominance) where the Eastern focus would be centred around more communal attributes linked to social and harmonious connections (Church et. al., 2014).

Upward and downward social comparison[edit | edit source]

Upward social comparisons require an individual to assess how they measure up against those superior to themselves, usually peers (Bounoua, Cury, Regner, Huguet, Barron & Elliot, 2012). This is supported by the hypothesis suggested by Festinger (1954) that individuals have a ‘unidirectional upward drives’ or ‘want to compare themselves’ with other slightly higher achieving persons that assists in motivating the need for self-improvement through learning or analysing better workmanship than their own (Bounoua et. al., 2012). Detrimental effects of upwards comparison would occur if an individual only focussed on making such comparisons and no downward social comparisons which could lead to issues concerning low self-esteem. This would be due to the constant comparison of their work with a higher achiever, therefore, causing the individual to constantly feel they have inadequate abilities.

Downward social comparisons are based on an assessment of how individuals measure themselves against their peers and are employed to protect one’s self-esteem (Myers, 2012). An example of this is when a person makes judgement of their own abilities against another individual who holds less competitive abilities. This leaves the individual comparing themselves to another with the feeling of superiority and boosts their self-esteem, generating motivation. People that[grammar?] focus only on downward comparisons without any upward social comparisons are suggested to be less likely to strive for self-enhancement and potentially ‘generate an unrealistic, over-inflated sense of self’ (Myers, 2012). Bauer, Wrosch, and Jobin (2008) studied the affect of downward comparison across several generations and found that as individuals age, downward social comparison assists in the reduction of regret intensity (the feelings associated with regretful behaviours or actions). Due to this comparison as people age, individuals are less likely to feel that their quality of life was not sufficient and appreciate what it is they have achieved (Bauer, Wrosch, and Jobin, 2008).

Maintaining a balance of both upward and downward social comparisons throughout a person's lifetime appears to assist in that individual's feeling of long-term acceptance and happiness with their life's achievements.

What motivates people to compare?[edit | edit source]

Figure 4.

Why is it that people sometimes feel like they have less than another or need to compare what they have/n't got with others? Does obtaining something another has really make us happier? Psychologist Hugh Mackay has undertaken Australian studies concerning social comparison and motivation and suggests that ‘those who undertake tasks they enjoy will continue to do them'. Additionally, 'when an individual obtains something they wanted, they are motivated to want more of it’ (Mackay, 2010). Although, this type of motivation does not always drive people to obtain things that are good for them; it also has the ability to ‘generates the desire for stimulation or distraction’ that have negative consequences (Mackay, 2010).

The ‘desire to want more, make plans, and take action’, generates competitive tendencies within all people; this is why 'social comparison can have such an influence on an individual’s life' (Feller, 1995). More doesn't necessarily have to be a tangible object such as nice house, holidays or latest technology, there are also intangible desires including the internal need to achieve higher in work abilities and personal creativity (Hugh, 2010). Research undertaken by Wiggins & Trobst, (1999) concerning the affect of relations between individuals suggests that there are two dimensions of interpersonal relations: “one of status, power, dominance, or agency, and one of solidarity, intimacy, friendliness, or communion” (Locke, 2003 p.1)

Upward and downward social comparison have taken most of the focus with less being spent on two other types of comparison that can affect an individual’s judgement of themselves based on the abilities of others: connective and contrastive. Connective is where the ‘comparison target is perceived to share a common ability or behaviour’ where ‘contrastive is when the compared individual does not have a common connection’ (Locke, 2003). For example, individual’s who run daily may make connective comparisons with someone who walks daily where people who do not exercise at all will have a contrastive comparison with that daily runner or walker. These two types of comparison are ‘employed to assist in the prediction of whether the ability being compared is an upward or downward evaluation’ (Locke, 2003).

Feldman and Ruble (1977) suggested that people may ‘compare themselves with others to assist with assessing and extending their own competencies’. ‘Educational facilities are suggested to be one of the first opportunities for social comparison as this is where children have greater access to a wide range of peers for which they can observe and compare abilities and opinions’ (Feldman & Ruble, 1977). This interaction provides each child with ‘knowledge that assists in aiding their understanding of the environment around them, and stimulates the urge to enhance their personal abilities’ (Feldman & Ruble, 1977). Social comparative influences from such environments include task attentiveness and self-confidence which feed into a person’s self-evaluation and self enhancement and guides upward and downward social comparisons with others. Social comparison appears to change as an individual ages. Younger children were identified to socially compare themselves as an act to find out if a “task being undertaken is being completed correctly or that they are acting within social norms where older children, who have obtained more competence are turning toward a more competitive and strategic nature” (Feldman & Ruble, 1977).

Figure 5. Social media generates a connection to social comparison that millions can access at any time

Social media is one such comparative outlet that is becoming a strong influence in today’s society as technology is readily accessible to many individuals. Social networking sites (SNSs) such as Facebook, Myspace and Instagram offer access and readily available comparative options that connect individuals together from all different cultures, countries, and socio-economic backgrounds. People have the ‘ability to observe other people’s lives through photographs, videos, personal identity details and events they have experienced’, to name a few, all from the comfort of electronic devices that have internet access (Vogel, Rose, Roberts & Eckles, 2014). ‘Making connections with others on these SNSs provides people with the perceived feeling of belongingness’ which has the ability to drive one’s motivation to continue accessing such outlets (Vogel et. al., 2014). It is suggested that people utilise these channels to undertake self-evaluations or self-enhancements which can potentially influence one’s motivation to alter their life. People can use this type of comparative information in either an upward (positive, challenging) or downward (superiority) function which can affect a person’s self-esteem. Chronic exposure and high participative activity to SNSs appear to have a negative effect on an individual’s self-esteem and marginally poorer relative self-evaluations (Vogel et. al., 2014).

Social Comparison's 'Dark Side'[edit | edit source]

Figure 6. The 'dark side' of social comparison can have a very strong influence over a person's perception of happiness.

Not all social comparisons generate positive influences such as the desire to strive for better and develop one’s self-enhancement. Focussing too heavily on comparing oneself to those around them can leave people feeling that winning, having the most, or being the best is the only way to be successful or happy. 'According to the classic theory of social comparison, those that frequently compare themselves to others should be happier if they believe they are better off than the people to whom they compare themselves', but studies have suggested that ‘individuals who admitted to making frequent social comparisons were more likely to experience emotions and behaviours that incur negative affect’ (White, Langer, Yariv & Welsh, 2006). These behaviours and emotions include ‘envy, guilt, regret, defensiveness, the urge to lie and blame others, and the inability to satisfy personal cravings’ (White et. al, 2006). Additionally, research carried out concerning police officers who participated in a study of social comparison found that ‘those whom made frequent comparisons were more likely to show an in-group bias and to be less satisfied with their jobs' (White et. al., 2006).

‘Envy is one such emotion that is generated through upward social comparison as it can be either constructive (assisting one’s own life productivity) or malicious (negative emotions and actions directed at the compared individual)’ (van de Ven, Zeelenberg & Pieters, 2011). A study undertaken by van de Ven et. al. (2011) suggested that deservingness is the difference between benign and malicious envy. Those that perceive others as deserving an achievement through hard work and dedication are more likely to see their failure as benign envy and will use information learned from the experience to strive for a more positive outcome in the future (van de Ven et. al., 2011). Individuals who perceive undeserving situations (where a person sees someone they do not like receiving acknowledgement and reward) are ‘likely to display malicious envy and less likely to act in a co-operative manner’ with that person as they feel they are undeserving of the reward and entitled to that outcome themselves (van de Ven et. al., 2011). Additionally, those who experience malicious envy are more likely to feel they have been overlooked and ‘seek to ‘pull-down’ those who they dislike’ (van de Ven et. al., 2011).

Constantly comparing oneself to others will generate the perspective of ‘chronic dissatisfaction’ which reduces the ability to achieve one’s full potential in life (White et. al., 2006). ‘Individuals who maintain a happy outlook on life appear to have less affective vulnerabilities than those whom maintain sad outlooks, or have mild depression, as they are less likely to pay attention to how well another person is progressing in their life where those with sad behaviours will make more frequent comparisons as they are potentially lacking in self-esteem, have depression or have neurotic tendencies’ (White et. al., 2006). These ‘vulnerabilities can facilitate a person’s dependency on social comparison’ which can have continued negative consequences if their abilities do not match or exceed another’s (White et. al., 2006). This leaves the individual constantly feeling as though they are a failure, and drives the desire to ‘self-focus on their inability to achieve or ‘win’, ultimately denying them the ability to generate a positive sense of well-being’ (White et. al. 2006).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The desire to obtain what an individual perceives as life’s full potential is constantly defined by what others have, believe or desire themselves. This does not necessarily mean that one’s life is better than another’s, but more about what factors people focus on that defines who they are, how they behave, and what they strive to achieve or change within themselves. Many factors motivate social comparison and these factors have the ability to strongly influence positive or negative consequences. The need to feel a connection and valued by those around us, especially those we have a close bond with, is what supports people to strive for and achieve a fulfilling life as they grow.

The impact of social comparison on motivation is impressively influential and constant. Maintaining a healthy balance of comparative functions including self-evaulation, self-enhancement and upward and downward social comparisons would greatly assist with a person’s desire to achieve their life’s full potential. Where there is too heavy a focus on negative social comparison functions and associated emotions, individuals suffer both mentally and socially, stunting personal growth for attainable life aspirations. As people enter older age, the influence that social comparison has over them appears to diminish, providing them with the ability to embrace life’s achievements and failures and focus on what makes them thrive personally and socially.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Buckingham, J.T., Zell, E., & Schurtz, D.R. (2012). Social Comparison Seeking: Providing General Comparison Curtails Local Comparison. Viewed 15 Sepetember 2014.

Church, Katigbak, Arias, Rincon, Vergas-Flores, Ibanez-Reyes, Wang, Alcarez, Wang & Ortiz (2014).A four-culture study of self-enhancement and adjustment using the social relations model: Do alternative conceptualizations and indices make a difference? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 106(6), Jun, 2014. pp. 997-1014.

Bauer, I., Wrosch, C., & Jobin, J. (2008). I’m Better Off Than Most Other People: The Role of Social Comparisons for Coping With Regret in Young Adulthood and Old Age. Psychology and Aging. American Psychological Association 2008, Vol. 23, No. 4, 800 – 811.

Corcoran, K., Crusius, J., & Mussweiler, T. (2011). Social Comparison: Motives, Standards, and Mechanisms. Theories in social psychology (pp.119-139). Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Feldman, N.S. & Ruble, D.N. (1977). Awareness of Social Comparison Interest and Motivations: A Developmental Study. Journal of Educational Psychology 1977, Vol. 69, No. 5, 579-585.

Feller, R.W. (1995).Action planning for personal competitiveness in the 'Broken Workplace'. Journal of Employment Counseling, Vol 32(4), Dec, 1995. Special Issue: Action planning. pp. 154-163.

Festinger, L. (1954). A Theory of Social Comparison Processes, Retrieved September 12, 2007, from database

Klenowski, V. (1995). Student self-evaluation processes in student-centred teaching and learning contexts of Australia and England. Assessment in Education, 2(2), 145-163.

Kruglanski, A.W. & Mayseless, O. (1990). Classic and Current Social Comparison Research: Expanding the Perspective.Psychological Bulletin Copyright 1990 by the American Psychological Association, Inc. 1990, Vol. 108, No. 2, 195-208.

Lester, D. 2013. Measuring Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Psychological Reports: Mental & Physical Health 2013, 113, 1, 15-17.

Lim, S. & Tai, K. (2014).Family incivility and job performance: A moderated mediation model of psychological distress and core self-evaluation. Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 99(2), Mar 2014, 351-359.

Locke, K.D. (2003).Status and Solidarity in Social Comparison: Agentic and Communal Values and Vertical and Horizontal Directions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2003). American Psychological Association, Inc. 2003, Vol. 84, No. 3, 619–631.

Mackay, H. (2010). What Makes Us Tick: The Ten Desires That Drive Us. Published by Hachette Australia Pty Limited, 2010.

Myers, D. G. Social Psychology, 10th edition (2012). New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 978-0078035296 ISBN 0078035295

Ross, J. A., Hogaboam-Gray, A., & Rolheiser, C. (2002). Student self-evaluation in grade 5-6 mathematics effects on problem-solving achievement. Educational Assessment, 8(1), 43-59.

Tigges, B.B. (2009). Psychometric Properties of the Social Comparison Motives Scale. Journal of Nursing Measurement, Volume 17, Number 1, 2009.

Tsai, W., Lau, A., Niles, A.N., Coello, J., Lieberman, M.D., Ko, A.C., Hur, C. & Stanton, A. (2014). Ethnicity Moderates the Outcomes of Self-Enhancement and Self-Improvement Themes in Expressive Writing. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology. Advance online publication.

White,J.B., Langer, E.J., Yariv, L & Welch IV, J.C. (2006). Frequent Social Comparisons and Destructive Emotions and Behaviours: The Dark Side of Social Comparisons. Journal of Adult Development, Vol. 13, No. 1, March 2006. DOI: 10.1007/s10804-006-9005-0

van de Ven, N., Zeelenberg, M., & Pieters, R. (2012). Appraisal patterns of envy and related emotions. Motiv Emot (2012) 36:195-204.

Vogel, E.A., Rose, J.P., Roberts, L.R., & Eckles, K. (2014). Social Comparison, Social Media, and Self-Esteem. Psychology of Popular Media Culture © 2014 American Psychological Association 2014, Vol. 3, No. 4, 206 –222.

External Links[edit | edit source]