Social Comparison And Its Effects On You – Part 1: Understanding Comparison And Its Different Forms


This is part 1 of a 4-part series on social comparison and how it affects you.

In this series, I want to share with you the subject of social comparison and the role it plays in your journey to becoming the happy better person you desire.

In this part 1, “understanding comparison and its different forms”, we shall look into the concept of comparison and the different types that exist. I decided that we learn this first before going into how it can negatively or positively affect us and how we can handle it to our advantage.

Now, let’s get started.

What is comparison?                                     

From a general standpoint, comparison has to do with comparing two things of similar or different qualities. When you make a comparison, you consider two or more things and discover the differences between them.

According to Neal Roese “Social psychologists have identified three types of comparison that we make on a daily basis…These include the counterfactual comparison, the social comparison and the temporal comparison.

In addition to these three, Stephane Gaskin PhD, mentioned a fourth type which is called the dimensional comparison.

Let’s look at each of them to know what they each entails

Counterfactual comparison                                                                  

In the words of Neal, “Counterfactual comparison involves comparison between what was (or what is) to what might have been.”

Social comparison

As Stephane wrote, “In the 1950s psychologist Leon Festinger proposed social comparison theory to explain how the concept we hold of ourselves is partly dependent on how we compare ourselves to other people.” “Social comparison theory focuses on external or interpersonal comparisons,” he said. In simple terms, social comparison occurs when you compare yourself to other people – what they have or who they are in the society and this determines how you think of yourself; negative or positive.

Temporal comparison

According to Stephane, the term temporal comparison was used by psychologist Stuart Albert in the 1970’s. He said while social comparison theory focuses on external or interpersonal comparison (i.e., comparing yourself to other people), temporal comparison occurs internally or at the interpersonal level across a time periods. He explained that we compare the way we are now with the way we were some time ago and to what we might become in the future.

Dimensional comparison

The fourth type of comparison we make is the dimensional comparison. What does this comparison entails? According to Stephane, Psychologist Jens Miller draws our attention to the fact that within the realm of interpersonal comparisons, we compare our abilities in one domain to our abilities in another domain. Giving an example he said, “I’m good in maths but terrible in languages.” Let me give another example. When you make a dimensional comparison, you may say, “I can sing wonderfully, but cannot do a public speech presentation very well.” You see it? In these two examples, while ‘solving math and singing’ are one domain or direction, ‘studying languages and public speaking’ are another domain or direction. You get the picture clearly I guess.

As far as this article is concerned, our main focus shall be on social comparison, even though we may also refer to the others especially temporal comparison where necessary as we progress in this series.

Just before then, here are 12 ways you can effectively manage your time.

Now, having known the different forms of comparison and what they mean, let’s move on.

Upward social comparison and downward social comparison

Under social comparison, experts have also identified the concept of upward and downward comparisons. Stephane, describing these said that you are engaging in an upward social comparison when you attempt to match a model that has qualities that you desire or that is more highly performing than you are. And you are engaged in a downward social comparison when you want to feel better about yourself in the face of a shortcoming or a perceived lack of skill.

Neal put it in clearer terms. Drawing a distinction between upward social comparison and downward social comparison, Neal said an upward social comparison occurs when you compare yourself to someone better off. An example; let me assume you’re a student. When you compare your CGPA of 2.5 to a coursemate whose CGPA is 4.5, you’re making an upward social comparison because the person you’re comparing yourself to is better than you in exam performance.

Neal went further to say that a downward social comparison occurs when you compare yourself to someone worse off. A simple example is comparing your well paid job to a friend’s not-so-well paid job. Here, you’re better than the person you compare yourself to. You say, “At least, I’m not as poor as Ken.”

Before You Become Bedmates, First Think About This…

I have come to know that downward social comparison can negatively and positively affect us, depending on our mindset or thinking pattern. When you compare yourself to someone who is doing worse than you, you feel better about yourself. You say, “I had a ‘C’ in the course. At least, I’m better than John who had a ‘D’. Here, comparing yourself to John gives you a feeling of comfort and encouragement which is good. But it has a negative effect on you.

According to a study (Emmons & McCough, 2003; Wehmeyer, 2013), this feeling of relief or comfort is only momentary and does not provide a long term solution to the issue. What is the issue here? Poor academic performance. Now, do you think feeling better because at least you performed better than John provide a solution to the problem? No! Instead, it might even worsen it. How? Because you’re comforted, you lose the pressure and motivation to work harder with the mindset that you’re not the worst student in the class.

Still using the above example, how can you use downward comparison to your advantage? Now, at times in life, being in an unfavourable situation can bring down our spirit and makes us think we are the most unfortunate people in the world. We feel we have nothing or no reason to be happy or grateful to God. But right in this bad condition, if you lift your face to look at the lives of others, to see how worse they are doing than you, you begin to realize that there is need to be happy and grateful to God. This feeling of happiness and gratitude enable you put things in perspective and give you encouragement and resilience to move on in life. In the example, rather than feeling bad and losing hope for your poor academic performance, after seeing fellow students who are in worse situation, you gather strength to cope and move on.

Like I said, our main focus is social comparison. Having established the forgoing facts, the next point is “What is the role of comparing yourself to others? Should you desist from the habit of social comparison or you should continue in it? This is what part 2 of this series shall consider. While I conclude this part, this is a mistake you should never make in your life especially if you are unmarried.

This is part 1 of a 4-part series on social comparison and its effects on you –Understanding comparison and its different forms. In the next part, we shall consider positive vs negative social comparison.

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