Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Social comparison and emotion

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Social comparison and emotion: What is the effect of social comparison on emotion?

Social comparison what is it, and how does it affect our emotions?

Social comparison[edit | edit source]

Humankind is arguably the most social being on the planet; given this, it is not surprising we all compare ourselves to those in our daily life. Are you intelligent, and how do you know? We compare our grades against our fellow psychology student. Do we believe in similar critical humanitarian issues, like our favourite celebrities, or our talents to those of our coworkers? Social comparison theory is an explanation for our tendency to draw comparisons among ourselves and others. We all want to be confident our perceptions, feelings, attitudes, and behaviour are valid and universal. As there is rarely an objective measure of validity, we seek uniform of these cognitions, emotions and behaviours in others. Therefore how exactly does social comparison work and how these judgments influence the views we hold of ourselves, with emphasis on emotion? Let us take a closer inspection.


“Comparison is the death of joy.”— Mark Twain

“Personality begins where comparison ends.” - Karl Lagerfeld

“Have more than you show, and speak less than you know.” – William Shakespeare

“We’re only envious of those already doing what we were made to do. Envy is a giant, flashing arrow pointing us toward our destiny.” – Glennon Doyle Melton

“You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

Festinger's (1954) social comparison theory[edit | edit source]

Social comparison theory which was proposed by Leon Festinger, 1954, is a process of thinking about information about one or more individual people concerning the self. The phrase “concerning the self” means that the comparer looks for or notices similarities or differences from whom the comparison on specific dimensions. These dimensions can vary to what the comparer notices, which are similarity/difference. This reaction can change self-evaluation, affect or behaviour (Gerber, Wheeler, & Suls, 2018).

'It is necessary, before we proceed, to clarify the distinction between opinions and evaluations of abilities since at first glance it may seem that one’s evaluation of one’s own ability is an opinion about it. Abilities are of course manifested only through performance which is assumed to depend upon the particular ability. The clarity of the manifestation or performance can vary from instances where there is no clear ordering criterion of the ability to instances where the performance which reflects the ability can be clearly ordered. In the former case, the evaluation of the ability does function like other opinions which are not directly testable in “objective reality’. For example, a person’s evaluation of his ability to write poetry will depend to a large extent on the opinions which others have of his ability to write poetry. In cases where the criterion is unambiguous and can be clearly ordered, this furnishes an objective reality for the evaluation of one’s ability so that it depends less on the opinions of other persons and depends more on actual comparison of one’s performance with the performance of others. Thus, if a person evaluates his running ability, he will do so by comparing his time to run some distance with the times that other persons have taken.' - Festinger, 1954

Suppose you complete an online test which gives you a score on emotional intelligence (EI) of 10 on a 15-point. One of your close friends seems relatively mature and emotionally intelligent, and a second, although spirited and good fun to be around, seems a bit immature. Whose EI score would you most likely compare scores? Comparing with your silly friend would probably boost your self-esteem by making you look superior. Although, comparing the mature friend might also increase your ego by showing that they also scored as high or almost as high as your mature friend. The question becomes even more interesting if we consider the context.

Suppose our self-esteem has been recently threatened, by some remark or event about our emotional intelligence. Would this threat push our comparison in an upward (mature friend) or downward (immature friend) direction (Gerber, Wheeler, & Suls, 2018)? Just like we compare our abilities, we compare our opinions. Abilities and opinions are close in a functional domain - acting together in a way which affects behaviour, and emotions. Cognitions (our thoughts and beliefs) about any given situation in which we exist and appraisals of what we are capable of doing (evaluation of abilities) will have a bearing on our emotions and behaviour. Incorrect opinions and/ore inaccurate appraisals of our capabilities can be unfavourable or even fatal in some situations (Festinger, 2016).

If other people (comparison target) perform better in general or with a specific attribute (e.g., intelligence, physical attractiveness, athletic ability), the individual (comparer) will feel worse; when others are worse off than the self, individuals will feel better (Festinger, 2016; Liu, Li, Carcioppolo, & North, 2016).

Downwards comparison theory[edit | edit source]

When individual encounter threats to self, they are likely to engage in downwards comparisons to others. This perspective proposed by Wills (1981) also argues that comparisons are generally upwards, but when self-esteem comes under threat comparisons change to a downward direction. People who have low self-esteem are especially apt to downwards comparison when self-esteem becomes threatened. There are two-parts to Wills theory, first predicting downward selection and second predicting a positive (change in self-esteem) reaction after engaging in downwards comparison.

Gibbons & McCoy, 1991 tested the hypothesis that both high and low self-esteem persons engage in downward social comparison, but do so in different ways. The first experiment indicated that high self-esteem people, when threatened, derogate a downward comparison target (a form of "active" downward comparison). Men did this in terms of competence, women in terms of liking or social distance. Low self-esteem persons did not derogate the target when threatened, but they did report mood improvement after the comparison opportunity (evidence of "passive" downward comparison). The second experiment replicated this latter effect and indicated that mood enhancement is mediated by perceptions of similarity to the target; the more similar the threatened, low self-esteem persons thought they were to the target, the better they felt after the comparison (Gibbons & McCoy, 1991)

Self-Esteem, Similarity, and Reactions to Active Versus Passive Downward Comparison - Gibbons, Frederick X ; McCoy, Sue Boney Journal of personality and social psychology, 1991-03, Vol.60 (3), p.414-424

Upward and construal social theory comparisons[edit | edit source]

Collins (1996, 2000) explained that people might assimilate their self-evaluation upwards to people they believe are better off. Building on Thornton and Arrowood 1966, who argued that individuals prefer to engage in upwards comparison - Collins believes these upwards comparisons are viewed as showing similarities to the better-off—leading people to elevate their self-worth on par with the target. When we initially expect to be similar to the target of comparison, and we uncover that primed to construe any difference as slight or nonexistent. Typically individual strive for the best outcomes in life; therefore, downwards comparisons with people who viewed to be worse-off, would not be beneficial. Brewer and Weber (1994) found high self-esteem and shared distinctiveness with others are two factors most clearly linked in upward assimilation’s.

Assimilation and contrast following upward and downward comparison. .png

Ability-based & opinion-based social comparisons[edit | edit source]

Self-esteem, such as self-improvement and/or self-enhancement, is viewed as ability-based social comparison. Those that engage in this type of social comparison familiarisation deliberately seek out others whom they are inspired to be in the future, facilitating self-improvement (similar to upwards comparison). Individuals also are promoted to select inferior others from whom they derive a sense of superiority, promoting better self-esteem (similar to downwards comparison). Research has suggested people taking part in ability-based social comparison to elevates their self-esteem. Interestingly, this happens when they believe they will, into the future, enjoy advantages of the feeling like the superior, compared with others. There is, however, another side to this story, self-esteem can take a hit - when someone assumes they cannot overcome their feelings of inferiority in the future - ultimately losing the perceived advantage. As you can see, when people with strong ability-based social comparison hold the view connections between the self and the comparison person are antagonistic (e.g., "who is better between me and him/her?"). "What others think" is a thought process involved with opinion-based social comparison. Typically related to self-evaluation motivations, individuals perform social comparison orientation to evaluate their own opinions are consistent, accurate, and socially acceptable. This can lead to the conformity of social pressure, Festinger, and other social psychologists predict this occurs through opinion-based social comparison orientation. A role model or an exemplar relationship forms, which comes about with individuals who have more substantial opinion-based comparisons, the relationship becomes what can be learned, rather than in competition.

Emotion and social comparison[edit | edit source]

Emotion what is it?[edit | edit source]

Emotion can be described as short-lived, feeling-purposive-expressive-bodily interactions helping people adapt to opportunities and challenges which we front during day-to-day life (Reeve, 2018).

Emotion consists of neural circuits (that are at least partially dedicated), response systems, and a feeling state/process that motivates and organizes cognition and action (Reeve, 2018).

Emotion also provides information to the person experiencing it, and may include antecedent cognitive appraisals and ongoing cognition including an interpretation of its feeling state, expressions, or social-communicative signals, and may motivate approach or avoidant behaviour, exercise control/regulation of responses, and be social or relational in nature (Reeve, 2018).

Four Components of Emotion

Common emotion activiated by social comparison[edit | edit source]

Inspiration: the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative.

Optimism: hopefulness and confidence about the future or the success of something.

Admiration: respect and warm approval.

Depression: feelings of severe despondency and dejection.

Shame: a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour.

Envy: a feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else's possessions, qualities, or luck.

Resentment: bitter indignation at having been treated unfairly.

Pity: the feeling of sorrow and compassion caused by the suffering and misfortunes of others.

Worry: feel or cause to feel anxious or troubled about actual or potential problems.

Sympathy: the formal expression of pity or sorrow for someone else's misfortune.

Contempt: the feeling that a person or a thing is worthless or beneath consideration.

Schadenfreude: pleasure derived by someone from another person's misfortune.

Pride: a feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one's own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired.

Four Types of social comparision-based emotions.png

Research by Park & Baek, 2018 identified four types of social comparison emotions. Characteristics of these emotions depend on the social comparison situation. (1) "direction of comparison" engaging upward versus downwards comparisons. (2) "degree of perceived control" is their reaction contrastive versus assimilation. (3) "desirability" are emotions positive or negative, and (4) "focus of attention" ourselves versus other individuals.

Social comparison based emotions can be arranged into four types by crossing both "direction of comparison" and "perceived control": (1) upward contrastive emotions (UCE), (2) upward assimilative emotions (UAE), (3) downward contrastive emotions (DCE), finally (4) downward assimilative emotions (DAE) (Park & Baek, 2018).

Let us say we come across a person deemed superior to us, feeling of inferiority, emotions like "shame" are activated, causing a negative emotional impact. On the flip side, if we believe this person advantage is undeserved and causes their feelings of inferiority, "resentment" maybe the emotions elicited. Park & Baek, 2018 distinguished "envy" distinctive from shame or resentment, uniquely having a dualistic property, that might vary depending on our focus (views it as our disadvantage or the other's advantage). When we focus on our disadvantages, then envy would be comparable to shame. Though, if the focus is on the other person's advantage, envy would resemble resentment.

Optimism, inspiration, and admiration are examples of positive emotions; the focus of our attention differs amongst these emotions. Feelings of "optimism" arise when the belief that the comparison other's superiority will have positive implications for our well-being. "Admiration" is felt when focusing of our attention becomes other's admirable actions. "Inspiration" of others focus has a dual effect: a triggering perception that other's superiority does influence the self pro active viewed as a model for our ownself behaviour inspiration.

Downwards contrastive emotions are likely to be triggered when a person feels superior to whom they are drawing comparison too. "Pride" is a common emotion arising when the self feels superior to others. The flip side of pride is "contempt" or "scorn" may be felt if we focus on blameworthy behaviours in other people. A dualistic emotion triggered when both self-superiority and blameworthy action simultaneously is "schademfreude".

Finally, Park & Baek, 2018, proposed downwards assimilate emotions emerge from feelings of superior as discussed thus far. However, there is a distinct difference, the intense feelings of superiorly might bring up emotions of "worry" or "fear", directly when beliefs that others misfortune possibly happening to them into the future. "Pity" could also be triggered if when thought turn "that will never happen to me", believing our misfortune is not like yours. "Sympathy", has a dual focus, involving both the self and other, like we have seen with emotions of envy, inspiration, or schadenfreude. Explained in terms "sym" indicates "together" and "pathy" meaning "pathos", the self shares the similar feeling with the comparisons other eperiencinf=g a misfortune, ourselves can understand the other's life experience with similar perspective and outlook.

Social networking, social media, and daily life[edit | edit source]

Users' ability-based indirectly influenced a study investigating the relationship between social networking site user well-being—also, opinion-based social comparison via four types of social comparison based emotions. The nature of the relationships depended much on the types of social comparison emotions. If optimism and inspiration (UAE) or worry and sympathy (DAE) experienced, then social comparison on social networking site can improve the users' psychological well-being. However, emotions like envy and depression (UCE) on social networking sites users' social comparison becomes harmful to their psychological well-being. This study demonstrates that relationships between social networking sites users' social orientations and their psychological well-being are varied—the nature of emotions directed at the comparison of others and perception towards the comparison other. So how we compare each other online is either positive or negative depends on the orientation of our types of emotions which become activated.

Facebook[edit | edit source]

When individuals scroll through their Facebook feeds, they are presented with Relentless context for them to relate to themselves automatically and engage in comparison behaviours. Although Suls (1977) put forth, people prefer private social comparisons (offline) and deviate asking others for social comparisons cues. Facebook provides us with perhaps effortless comparisons - friends’ posts give ample opportunities for comparisons. Fictitious characters in the media are somewhat less appealing to draw comparisons. People prefer to draw comparisons of themselves from a comparable target (Lubbers, Kuyper, & Van Der Werf, 2009). Generally, our Facebook “friends” are family and friends we see in person; given these social comparisons are more salient, when sided with mass media. Facebook has the advantage of influencing users’ emotions.

The emotion felt during Facebook users’ are dependent on the direction of the comparisons.

Individuals with high tendencies to engage in social comparisons have certain features characterised as increased sensitivity to the behaviours of others, as they tend to be uncertain about the self, with a desire to reduce this uncertainty and improve their overall self-worth. Modern technologies have transformed our social relationships from private (offline) to the public sphere (online).

The types of interactions that other people post to their statuses, photos, and news articles trigger specific social comparisons, that bring emotions which can make us feel better or worse. A fair amount of research (Feinstein et al., 2013; Krasnova, Wenninger, Widjaja, & Buxmann, 2013; Nesi & Prinstein, 2015) shows certain types of social comparisons made on Facebook may predict emotions, which can cause depression, rumination and generally lower life satisfaction. However, individuals with lower self-esteem tend to spend more time on Facebook, engaging in higher levels of social comparison.

As social comparisons theory suggests, self-esteem levels influence the tendency to compare, making the use of Facebook a tool of social comparison. The simulation Facebook offers individuals the benefit of forming comparisons and ultimately increases in their self-esteem.

Facebook, self-esteem and social comparison[edit | edit source]

We all here and see it online and conversation with those around us, we need to build on having good self-esteem. Self-esteem is a process affecting feelings towards the self (e.g., how much do we like ourself) and a cognitive judgment (refer this wiki page) of our worth (e.g., how competent we believe we are; Brown & Marshall, 2001; Crocker & Wolfe, 2001). When we have high self-esteem an overall highly positive view of the self, individuals with lower levels of esteem can be uncertain or relatively negative towards the self (Campbell et al., 1996; Zeigler-Hill, 2013). Given this, our levels of self-esteem influence our strategies of processing and interpreting social comparisons, affecting self-worth (refer wiki page about self-work). But having high self-esteem can actually hurt us when engaging in social comparisons. Interestingly, interacting with worse-off others, results in high self-esteem people to exhibit significant lower self-evaluations compared to low-self-esteem individuals, what is happening here? Seems high self-esteem people are not always good at producing positive reactions through social comparisons, unlike low self-esteem individuals.

High self-esteem individuals process and pay more attention to information related to self-worth more willingly. As Baumeister, Tice and Hutton (1989) explained, when we have higher levels of self-esteem our actions turn to self-enhancement. This can be achieved through the focus of our skills and talents, while also taking risks to gain self-worth. On the flip, if we already have low self-esteem, these emotions inhibit us from taking challenges, which might bring reward

Research Box - Do Our Facebook Friends Make Us Feel Worse? A Study of Social Comparison and Emotion - Liu et al., 2016

People often compare themselves to others to gain a better understanding of the self in a process known as social comparison. The current study discusses how people engage in a social comparison process on Facebook, and how observing content from their Facebook friends may affect their emotions.

.....low-self-esteem individuals, in general, attempted to avoid social comparison information when processing Facebook posts, thereby shielding themselves from the impact of these posts. On the contrary, high-self-esteem individuals automatically and actively engaged in the social comparison process. Thus, the reflecting process with close friends and the social comparison process with distant friends were more salient for those with high self-esteem.

..... significant and positive associations between self-esteem and the explicit measures of emotion found in this study can also support this explanation since high-self-esteem individuals tend to have a higher positive bias.

Competition and influencer[edit | edit source]

Users of popular social networking sites such as Facebook and Instagram regularly engage in social comparison, affecting their emotions, and general psychological well-being. Those utilising comparison other as a "competitor" implies that social networking site users driven by such orientations more likely checking they are more superior to others in their news feeds. This might be seen as positively affecting their emotions in retaining psychological well-being.

An influencer is a person who is able to sway a targeted audience, in this case, via social networking sites (e.g., Instagram influencer). Social media marketing often has product placements and endorsements to their 1000s of followers.

Big fish little fish[edit | edit source]

In brief, given this page has been developed as part of an assessment in a higher education setting, how do social comparisons affect Academic life—the concept of being the Big fish, in the little pond on performance outcomes. Academically selective institutions are meant to affect self-concept positively; however, this is not always accurate (Marsh & Hau, 2003).

Unsurprisingly, from what is known thus far on social comparison, relatively competent students in an educational setting with the majority of less talented peers will hold positive academic self-concept.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

As discussed throughout this book chapter, social comparisons affect our emotions, depending on how we engage in comparisons. This area of inquiry is tricky, as like much of human psychology, by exploring emotions and social comparisons, one can help but ask further questions.

Most of the research outline above has skewed towards social comparisons made on social networking sites (e.g., Facebook) - we insist it is most relevant, as during this current time our life’s have been impacted heavily by a global pandemic COVID-19. With restrictions on social gatherings, furthermore, isolation in general, individuals have turned to online interactions for social simulation.

More often, negative emotions tend to be reported within the social comparison literature. Emotional states evoked, can be linked to anxiety and depression. Our self-worth is highly crucial to psychological well-being. Self-esteem plays an integral part in our emotional life - we turn to social media or offline interactions in the hope to validate our lives, relationships, and feelings with hopes of improving self-esteem, which does not always unfold.

There is a clear link between social comparisons, emotions and self-esteem - negative emotions affecting self-esteem. As social comparison is almost an automatic process, and some times out of our control - actively choose to limit our time scrolling through other social networking sites feeds can improve our overall well-being. That said, more research is out there, and a curious mind is arguably a healthy mind, ditch the news feeds and get out there exploring social comparison and emotions.

See also[edit | edit source]

resilience during COVID-19 pandemic isolation (Book chapter, 2020)

Emoticons, emoji, and the electronic communication of emotion (Book chapter, 2018)

Motivation and social comparison (Book chapter, 2014)

Social comparison, social media, and emotion (Book Chapter 2019)

Social comparison, social media, and emotion (Book chapter, 2019)

References[edit | edit source]

Barch, D. M., Harms, M. P., Tillman, R., Hawkey, E., & Luby, J. L. (2019). Early Childhood Depression, Emotion Regulation, Episodic Memory, and Hippocampal Development. Journal of abnormal psychology (1965), 128(1), 81-95. doi:10.1037/abn0000392

Baumeister, R. F., Tice, D. M., & Hutton, D. G. (1989). Self-Presentational Motivations and Personality Differences in Self-Esteem. Journal of personality, 57(3), 547-579. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.1989.tb02384.x

Brown, J. D., & Marshall, M. A. (2016). Self-Esteem and Emotion: Some Thoughts about Feelings. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 27(5), 575-584. doi:10.1177/0146167201275006

Collins, R. L. (1996). For Better or Worse: The Impact of Upward Social Comparison on Self-Evaluations. Psychological bulletin, 119(1), 51-69. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.119.1.51

Feinstein, B. A., Hershenberg, R., Bhatia, V., Latack, J. A., Meuwly, N., & Davila, J. (2013). Negative Social Comparison on Facebook and Depressive Symptoms: Rumination as a Mechanism. Psychology of popular media culture, 2(3), 161-170. doi:10.1037/a0033111

Festinger, L. (2016). A Theory of Social Comparison Processes. Human relations (New York), 7(2), 117-140. doi:10.1177/001872675400700202

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

Gibbons, F. X., Lane, D. J., Gerrard, M., Reis-Bergan, M., Lautrup, C. L., Pexa, N. A., & Blanton, H. (2002). Comparison-Level Preferences After Performance: Is Downward Comparison Theory Still Useful? Journal of personality and social psychology, 83(4), 865-880. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.83.4.865

Gibbons, F. X., & McCoy, S. B. (1991). Self-Esteem, Similarity, and Reactions to Active Versus Passive Downward Comparison. Journal of personality and social psychology, 60(3), 414-424. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.60.3.414

Huguet, P., Dumas, F., Marsh, H., Régner, I., Wheeler, L., Suls, J., . . . Nezlek, J. (2009). Clarifying the Role of Social Comparison in the Big-Fish-Little-Pond Effect (BFLPE): An Integrative Study. Journal of personality and social psychology, 97(1), 156-170. doi:10.1037/a0015558

Liu, J., Li, C., Carcioppolo, N., & North, M. (2016). Do Our Facebook Friends Make Us Feel Worse? A Study of Social Comparison and Emotion: Facebook Social Comparison and Emotion. Human communication research, 42(4), 619-640. doi:10.1111/hcre.12090

Marsh, H. W., & Hau, K.-T. (2003). Big-Fish-Little-Pond Effect on Academic Self-Concept: A Cross-Cultural (26-Country) Test of the Negative Effects of Academically Selective Schools. The American psychologist, 58(5), 364-376. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.58.5.364

Nesi, J., & Prinstein, M. J. (2015). Using Social Media for Social Comparison and Feedback-Seeking: Gender and Popularity Moderate Associations with Depressive Symptoms. Journal of abnormal child psychology, 43(8), 1427-1438. doi:10.1007/s10802-015-0020-0

Orth, U., Berking, M., & Burkhardt, S. (2016). Self-Conscious Emotions and Depression: Rumination Explains Why Shame But Not Guilt is Maladaptive. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 32(12), 1608-1619. doi:10.1177/0146167206292958

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

Reeve, J. (2018). Understanding Motivation and Emotion (Vol. 7th): Wiley.

Stephen, M. G., Avishalom, T., & Tyrone, M. S. (2013). The Psychology of Competition: A Social Comparison Perspective. Perspectives on psychological science, 8(6), 634-650. doi:10.1177/1745691613504114

External links[edit | edit source]

Big-fish–little-pond effect (Wikipedia)

Facebook (Wikipedia)

Leon Festinger (Wikipedia)

Instagram (Wikipedia)

Influencer marketing (Wikipedia)

psychological well-being (Wikiipedia)

Social comparison theory (Wikipedia)