Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Social comparison, social media, and emotion

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Social comparison, social media, and emotion:
How does social comparison on social media affect emotion?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Social comparison theory suggests that there is a drive within individuals to compare themselves socially. However, a question arises as to whether individuals know the impact this has on their emotions. While some researchers suggest that social comparison can have positive effects among individuals, the research evidence reviewed in this chapter indicates that there are more negative effects of social comparison on emotions than positive, and that the harms of social comparison on emotion can outweigh the suggested benefits.

Focus questions

  • What is social comparison? Why, how and where do people engage in social comparisons?
  • What are emotions?
  • What are the effects of upward and downward social comparisons, specifically on online social networking sites (OSNSs), on emotions?
  • What are the implications of these comparisons for psychological well-being and psychological disorders?

Learning objectives

  • Acquire knowledge of social comparison and emotions
  • Discover the effects of OSNSs' social comparisons on emotions
  • Understand the implications for psychological well-being and psychological disorders
  • Gain awareness and reflect on own experiences


Questions to consider and self-reflect
  • Have you ever compared yourself or others?
  • Do you use social media? If so, have you ever compared yourself and/or others to what you see on OSNSs such as Facebook and Instagram)?
  • Have you changed your attitudes and/or other aspects of yourself as a result of social comparisons?

Social comparison theory[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Evaluating height by using social comparison theory

Social comparison theory was initially proposed in 1989 by Leon Festinger, an American social psychologist best known for his contributions to social comparison theory and the concept of cognitive dissonance. This theory can be defined as the process of thinking and comparing information about one or more people concerning the self (Gerber & Wheeler, 2018). Social comparison theory was constructed by nine hypotheses and can be best understood by two main premises:

1) Humans have an innate drive to constantly evaluate themselves in terms of opinions, abilities, and possessions, among other aspects. This evaluation constructs people’s way of thinking and self-concept, and defines and influences how they behave in their everyday lives.

2) To achieve self-evaluation, humans will seek to compare themselves to other people in different contexts, such as workplaces, and social and educational settings (Halliwell & Dittmar, 2005). For example, a person can evaluate his or her dancing ability by comparing himself or herself with someone who has excellent movements. Appraisal of his or her dancing ability will be based on how similar he or she is to who is considered the best dancer. Physical appearance can be another example of this premise, in which people can define themselves as short or tall comparing their own and others’ height (see Figure 1).

Motives underlying social comparison[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. People tend to evaluate themselves before and/or after social comparisons, often influenced by a self-enhancement goal.

Along with the initial framework of the theory, the motivations that underlie the social comparisons people make or engage in are important to consider. Research has suggested that while people have different reasons or motivations to compare (Gerber et al., 2018), including components of attributions and validation, and the avoidance of closure, a consensus has been found in two main motives: self-evaluation and self-enhancement.

Self-evaluation[edit | edit source]

As it is suggested in the first premise of social comparison theory, people usually tend to self-evaluate. Self-evaluation is not only considered the function and the process of engaging in comparisons with others, but also an important aspect of peoples’[grammar?] personal and social identity (Halliwell et al., 2005). Considering the importance of identity, self-evaluation has been considered a cardinal self-motive composed of self-assessment and self-verification, which are relevant to the development, maintenance and mediation of self-views (Scholer, Ozaki, & Higgins, 2014).

The self-assessment motive proposes that people seek to have an accurate and objective evaluation of the self, reduce the uncertainty of self-capacities and seek feedback to form or modify self-conceptions. Similarly, self-verification suggests that people have the desire to verify the conceptions they have about themselves and maintain consistency. To achieve these goals, individuals tend to engage in different social comparisons, usually choosing targets similar to themselves, with the motivation of achieving accuracy in their self-evaluations (Halliwell et al., 2005).

Self-enhancement[edit | edit source]

Self-enhancement motive suggests that when people engage in comparisons, they are often influenced by a self-enhancement goal of perceiving themselves more positively, while enhancing their feelings of self-worth as a result of the comparison (Cramer, Song, & Drent, 2016). Figure 2 is an example of self-evaluation with, as expressed in the face of the lady, a self-enhancement goal of feeling happy and satisfied. Self-enhancement motive also explains how a person decides to engage or avoid comparisons, to improve their self-esteem, identity and perception (Brown, Kobayashi, & Brown, 2003). In contrast to self-evaluation motives, people engaging in social comparisons with the goal of self-enhancement tend to compare themselves with those they perceive as less fortunate to feel better about themselves (Cramer et al., 2016).

Types of social comparison[edit | edit source]

The process of social comparison involves knowing oneself by evaluating appearance, attitudes, beliefs and behaviour in comparison with others (Gerber et al., 2018). There are two kinds of social comparisons people can engage in: upward social comparison and downward social comparison.

Upward social comparison[edit | edit source]

Upward social comparison describes the process of people comparing themselves with those who they believe are better (Caricati & Caricati, 2012). Upward comparisons are mainly influenced by the motivation to self-evaluate and to then achieve self-enhancement (Tiggemann & Polivy, 2010). Researchers suggest that, in upward social comparisons, people have the desire to be superior, and make comparisons highlighting the similarities they have to the comparison group (Tiggeman et al., 2010). They also suggested that upward social comparisons provide opportunities for inspiration, motivation and improvement, as there is a desire to obtain or achieve the properties that the comparison model has achieved.

Research suggests that engaging in upward social comparisons is generally useful for people with high self-esteem to improve low mood and to gain motivation (Caricati et al., 2010). In contrast, Yip and Kelly (2013), suggested that upward social comparison can decrease self-esteem and happiness, as individuals feel unable to achieve the perfect and successful life they usually compare to. This controversy suggests that the outcomes of comparisons, whether they are positive or negative, depend on the type of comparison, how a person feels after the comparison and some other individual characteristics, such as personality.


Case study: Paul's upward social comparison in social media

Paul wanted to start a healthy lifestyle as he felt overweight. Searching posts with the hashtag #loosingweight on Instagram, Paul found a personal trainer who shares exercise tips and fitness progress pictures. Paul has tried this new lifestyle for a week, and he is now comparing his performance and physical appearance to the personal trainer’s past and current posts. (Would this trigger Paul’s envy, shame, or inspiration?)

Downward social comparison[edit | edit source]

According to Caricati et al. (2012), downward social comparison is considered a defensive tendency as a result of self-evaluation motives. They suggested that these comparisons take place when people compare themselves favourably to others who are worse off than themselves, to feel better and to create a positive self-image. Unlike upward social comparison, similarities between individuals, comparison models, and groups are disassociated in downward comparisons (Tiggemann et al., 2010). Research suggests that engaging with downward social comparison can be useful for individuals who had a threat to self-esteem so they can improve their mood and self-concept (Caricati et al., 2012). While there are more positive outcomes of downward than upward comparisons, controversy also exists regarding the outcomes of downward comparisons, as these can also result in negative emotions and deteriorated affect display (Lockwood, 2002).


Case study: Paul's downward social comparison in social media

Using the same hashtag in his Instagram search, he found people who are experiencing obesity. Paul then compared his weight with the photos and posts he encountered and felt better about his overall progress and appearance. (Would this trigger Paul’s pride and joy?)

Quiz[edit | edit source]

Nuvola apps korganizer.svg
Quick questions!

1 The statement ‘at least I did not make a mistake in front of everyone like that boy’ relates to:

Upward social comparison
Downward social comparison

2 The statement ‘she is so much happier and more successful than me’ relates to:

Downward social comparison
Upward social comparison

Emotions[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Emojis used in social media platforms to express emotions

There are many definitions of emotions in the literature on this topic. This book chapter, however, will adopt the definition suggested by Revee (2018): ‘’Emotions are short-lived, feeling-purposive-expressive bodily responses that help us adapt to the opportunities and challenges we face during important life events’’ (p. 288). Emotions are composed of feelings, bodily arousal, sense of purpose, and expressive behaviour, among other factors (Revee, 2018).

There are different theoretical perspectives to explain the nature, the aspects, and the processes of emotions. However, as this book chapter focuses on social comparison, social media, and emotions, the social aspects and functions of emotions, and the different social influences which impact emotions are important to consider.

While researchers adopting a cognitive perspective have highlighted the importance of other people as rich sources for the development of emotions (Revee, 2018), research suggests that people and events themselves do not cause emotions. Instead, the cognitive appraisal of how the event impacts life experience and well-being is what elicits an emotional reaction (Revee[spelling?], 2018).

Appraisal of an event, situation or, in this case, the comparisons people engage in, impact emotions. For example, evaluating the personal significance of the comparison, whether it is an upward or downward comparison, can cause pleasant and/or unpleasant emotions[factual?]. While the biological perspective is important to understand the causes of emotions, in terms of the activation of neural circuits and other aspects, the literature on social comparison mainly addresses this phenomenon from the cognitive perspective.

The literature on this topic and the different theoretical perspectives of emotions, especially the cognition-biology debate raise an important question: how many emotions are there? While the biological perspective emphasises eight basic emotions, including sadness, joy and anger; the cognitive perspective acknowledges the importance of basic, complex, and secondary emotions while stressing that these emotional experiences arise from individual, social, and cultural experiences (Revee[spelling?], 2018). These perspectives do not provide a consensus on the question about the number of emotions that exist. They instead suggest that the answer to this question depends on whether the emphasis is given in favour of the biological or the cognitive perspective.

Social media's influence on social comparison[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Most common online social networking sites on social media

Where are we more vulnerable to engage in social comparisons, or to be socially compared? Research evidence has indicated that social comparisons can be made in different life contexts. This includes social comparisons in educational contexts (Nazmiye, 2018), and in the workplace (Halliwell, 2005). Recent research has shown that apart from these social comparisons, which are important and relevant to consider, social media plays a significant role in social comparisons and in the impact that these could have on peoples’[grammar?] emotions.

Researchers have suggested that OSNSs, such as Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms (see Figure 4), magnify the impact of social comparison among the emotions of users (Chae, 2018). As users are exposed to different profiles and photos, they tend to compare their own social media platform in terms of likes and followers (Charoensukmongkol, 2018). Even more alarming, users tend to compare their own lives in terms of failures, successes, possessions or even physical characteristics, which are critical for the development of their identity, emotions and psychological well-being (Nazmiye, 2018).

Upward social comparison's effect on emotions[edit | edit source]

Research evidence suggests that the upward social comparisons people make in social media have a negative effect mainly on two emotions: envy and shame.

Envy[edit | edit source]

Focusing on the upward social comparisons people make in OSNSs, research indicates that envy is one of the most common negative emotions triggered by these comparisons (Chou & Edge, 2012). According to Lazarus (as cited in Nabi & Keblusek, 2014, p. 22), envy is an emotion characterised by wanting what another has or wanting to be who another is, and its action tendency is to seek and possess. Within the research on social comparison and social media's effects on emotion, the emphasis has been given to the upward social comparisons individuals make, both males and females, in terms of body-image, possessions and lifestyles.

There is evidence that suggests that the comparisons individuals make to idealised media models are directly linked to body dissatisfaction, along with increased envy and the desire to achieve impossible body-image standards (Nabi et al., 2014). Contradictory research has proposed that social comparisons in social media can produce benign envy, which can inspire individuals to achieve goals, possessions or the appearance of a role model or influencer (Nabi et al., 2014). Recent research has, however, evaluated this finding and suggested that this is not the case in peer-dominated OSNSs such as Facebook, which lacks authentic role models that fake perfect life-styles (Migley as cited in Lim & Yang, 2015, p. 7). While various research studies are looking at the effects of social comparison on envy, there are three research findings that are important to analyse for a further understanding and explanation of the effects:

Researcher Findings
(Appel, Crusius & Gerlach, 2015) OSNSs such as Facebook allow easy impression management and provide high comparison standards. Upward social comparisons on Facebook, in terms of attractive profiles, made envy, inferiority, and low self-esteem more likely among individuals. Depression was also a factor in this association, suggesting that depressed participants were more envious, especially after seeing an attractive and persuasive profile.
(Chae, 2018) Social media's usage, exposure to influencers’ social media platforms, and interest in specific content on social media were associated with the frequency of social comparison of one’s life with that of influencers, which predicted envy among 246 female users.
(Charoensukmongkol, 2018) There was a positive relationship between social media use, social comparison, and envy in teenagers. 144 teenagers who rated themselves higher on social media use (Facebook and Instagram) tended to report social comparison and peer-competition with their friends, and a higher degree of envy. Family factors were also analysed in the study, suggesting that for teenagers whose parents like to compare their children, the positive linkage between social media, intensity, and envy were higher.
(Meier & Schafer, 2018) Upward social comparisons and envy on OSNSs, especially Instagram, were strongly related. 385 Instagram users revealed that social comparison were, however, related to inspiration, and that this relationship was fully mediated by benign envy.
(Krasnova, 2013) Upward social comparisons made on Facebook, especially related to vacation posts and leisure pictures, evoked envy among 106 social media users.

Shame[edit | edit source]

Shame is a self-conscious emotion that requires a cognitive process and a notion of the self (Gray & Wegner, 2010). This emotion is based on self-evaluation, and when a social standard is compared with self-concept, shame is triggered by assuming self-responsibility for not meeting the standards (Lim et al., 2005). According to Scheff (as cited in Liam & Yam, 2015, p.14), shame is created from the desire to observe oneself through the eyes of others. This is related to social media as, when people share or modify their profiles, they often do so by questioning what others would think of them. While shame has been considered a positive emotion to motivate prosocial and goal-seeking behaviour (Liam et al., 2015), there have not been research studies suggesting a positive association between shame and upward or downward comparisons on social media. Specific research examples explaining the effect of social comparisons in OSNSs on emotions include:

Researcher Findings
(Deighton-Smith & Bell, 2017) Individuals felt ashamed when they compared their physical appearance to 'more attractive' users on Instagram, a social media platform where photos and posts are often edited.
(Goodman, 2014) Self-evaluation and self-comparison through OSNSs made young individuals experience feelings of shame, guilt, worthlessness and a desire to hide or regress.
(Lim & Yang, 2015) Results suggested that social comparison to media figures correlated with shame among 446 university students. Shame was significantly related to burnout as a psychological response. Negative upward comparisons in OSNSs led to a poor self-impression, thereby affecting helplessness and burnout responses among users. The given social roles in social media might be excessive, and it is the failure to fulfil those roles which could impact and increase shame.

Downward comparisons' effect on emotions[edit | edit source]

In contrast to upward social comparisons, there is not much research evidence concerning the effects of downward social comparisons on emotions. However, the effects found in the literature indicate a positive effect of OSNSs' downward comparisons on two emotions: pride and joy.

Pride and Joy[edit | edit source]

Pride and joy are considered positive emotions in reaction to a positive outcome (Kornilaki & Chlouverakis, 2004). Research has suggested that downward social comparisons on social media can trigger joy and pride, as individuals compare themselves with those who are less successful, attractive or who are worse off (Utz & Muscanell, 2018).

Research also suggests that when users share personal achievements, personal and physical attributes throughout OSNSs, such as Facebook and Instagram, and compare themselves to those less successful, they tend to experience pride and joy (Utz et al., 2018). Furthermore, Webser et al. (2003) suggests that pride and joy were higher when praise was given through positive comments and likes in OSNSs such as Facebook and Instagram. However, recent research has suggested that while it is important to recognise the positive outcomes of downward social comparisons in terms of pride and joy, these emotions are only triggered when public and explicit social comparison information is provided and shared through platforms (Utz et al., 2018).

This contradictory evidence suggests that while social comparisons in social media are mainly prejudicial for users, positive outcomes can emerge from downward social comparisons. This depends on individual characteristics such as personality, individuals’ use of social media, whether they share or not their achievements, and how each individual processes the information they are exposed to on OSNSs.

Implications for psychological disorders and well-being[edit | edit source]

Emotions are an important aspect of psychological well-being (Park & Baek, 2018). Most of the aforementioned studies in this chapter suggested that the effects of social comparisons on emotions impact individuals’ well-being. For example, researchers such as Appel et al. (2015) indicated that social comparison in social media cannot only affect envy, but also increase the likelihood of developing psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety disorders.

Utz et al. (2018) also addressed this association and suggested that envy and shame, in relation to social comparisons of body standards and life-styles, can make individuals experience extreme exercise routines, and increase the likelihood of developing eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. This finding can outweigh the benefits proposed by Lim et al. (2015), who indicated that the upward comparisons people make, throughout the exposure to influencers' posts and messages, can inspire and motivate individuals. While it is valid to consider that some individuals might experience inspiring outcomes, it is important to address and be aware of the vulnerability that they could have of developing anxiety or other disorders due to body-image concerns.

Relevant video[edit | edit source]

Video break

An interesting, informative and interactive video about social comparisons on social media - What are the effects of these comparisons and the strategies to reduce them?

Click here: access video

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Social comparison theory suggests that individuals tend to constantly compare themselves socially. These comparisons are mainly influenced by two motives: self-evaluation and self-enhancement. While there are different contexts in which these comparisons can be made, social media has recently been where individuals most engage in comparisons. The literature presents conflicting conclusions about upward and downward social comparisons, and their positive and/or negative effects on emotions. Overall, research suggests that this is not a black-and-white topic. However, most of the research evidence in the literature of this topic highlights the negative effect of social comparison, especially on OSNSs, on emotions.

When it comes to social comparisons on OSNSs, the focus has mainly been on envy and shame. These emotions are triggered by upward comparisons influenced by likes, comments, and/or successful posts influencers have on OSNSs, or the information and achievements they share. As mentioned in the research, negative emotions arise by the influence of social comparison on social media. This includes the influence of not meeting or obtaining impossible body standards, possessions, and achievements of social media influencers.

Contradictory research suggests, however, that downward comparisons on social media can increase pride and joy when users share achievements and compare themselves to less successful users. The question to be addressed in further research is: what if people do not share achievements? Do they still feel proud and happy?. Contradictory evidence also suggests that the effects of social comparison on emotions depend on social media usage, the comparison orientation and information, the comparison source, and other individual differences. This is an important aspect that also deserves further exploration, as the effects of social comparisons on emotions can be dependent on one or more of the aforementioned individual and/or OSNSs aspects.

Emotions play a critical role in psychological disorders and, therefore, have a significant impact on individuals' psychological well-being. While psychological disorders were not a primary focus in this book chapter, the implications of these comparisons upon depression, anxiety, and/or eating disorders, such as bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa, are important to further consider.

Take home message

It’s crucial to mindfully observe the comparisons we formulate in our heads and remember that every one of us is unique in our personalities, strengths, weaknesses, and abilities. In this way, it’s impossible to accurately compare ourselves to others

- Justine Curwen

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Appel, H., Crusius, J., & Gerlach, A. (2015). Social comparison, envy, and depression on facebook: A study looking at the effects of high comparison standards on depressed individuals. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 34(4), 277–289. https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2015.34.4.277

Brown, J., Kobayashi, C., & Brown, J. (2003). Motivation and manifestation: Cross-cultural expression of the self-enhancement motive. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 6(1), 85–88. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-839X.t01-1-00012

Caricati, L., & Caricati, L. (2012). Upward and downward comparison in the intermediate-status group: the role of social stratification stability. The British Journal of Social Psychology, 51(2), 374–384. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8309.2011.02054.x

Chae, J. (2018). Explaining females’ envy toward social media influencers. Media Psychology, 21(2), 246–262. https://doi.org/10.1080/15213269.2017.1328312

Charoensukmongkol, P. (2018). The impact of social media on social comparison and envy in teenagers: The moderating role of the parent comparing children and in-group competition among friends. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 27(1), 69–79. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-017-0872-8

Chou, H., Edge, N., & Chou, H. (2012). “They are happier and having better lives than I am”: the impact of using Facebook on perceptions of others’ lives. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 15(2), 117–121. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2011.0324

Cramer, E., Song, H., & Drent, A. (2016). Social comparison on Facebook: Motivation, affective consequences, self-esteem, and Facebook fatigue. Computers in Human Behavior, 64, 739–746. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2016.07.049

Gerber, J., Wheeler, L., & Suls, J. (2018). A social comparison theory meta-analysis 60+ years on. Psychological Bulletin, 144(2), 177–197. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000127

Goodman, M. (2014). Shame, angry judges, and the social media effect. Catholic University Law Review, 63(3), 589–623. https://doi.org/10.1013/bul000167

Gray, K., & Wegner, D. (2010). Torture and judgments of guilt. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46(1), 233–235. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2009.10.003

Halliwell, E., & Dittmar, H. (2005). The role of self-improvement and self-evaluation motives in social comparisons with idealised female bodies in the media. Body Image, 2(3), 249–261. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2005.05.001

Lim, M., & Yang, Y. (2015). Effects of users’ envy and shame on social comparison that occurs on social network services. Computers in Human Behavior, 51(2), 300–311. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2015.05.013

Lockwood, P. (2002). Could it happen to you? Predicting the impact of downward comparisons on the self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82(3), 343–358. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.82.3.343

Meier, A., Schäfer, S., & Meier, A. (2018). Positive side of social comparison on social network sites: How envy can drive inspiration on instagram. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 21(7), 411–417. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2017.0708

Nabi, R., & Keblusek, L. (2014). Inspired by hope, motivated by envy: Comparing the effects of discrete emotions in the process of social comparison to media figures. Media Psychology, 17(2), 208–234. https://doi.org/10.1080/15213269.2013.878663

Park, S., & Baek, Y. (2018). Two faces of social comparison on Facebook: The interplay between social comparison orientation, emotions, and psychological well-being. Computers in Human Behavior, 79(2), 83–93. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2017.10.028

Reeve, J. (2018). Understanding motivation and emotion (Seventh edition.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Scholer, A., Ozaki, Y., & Higgins, E. (2014). Inflating and deflating the self: Sustaining motivational concerns through self-evaluation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 51(2). http://search.proquest.com/docview/1494851815/

Tiggemann, M., & Polivy, J. (2010). Upward and downward: Social comparison processing of thin idealized media images. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 34(3), 356–364. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-6402.2010.01581.x

Yip, J., & Kelly, A. (2013). Upward and downward social comparisons can decrease prosocial behavior. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43(3), 591–602. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1559-1816.2013.01039.x

External links[edit | edit source]