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The Affective Consequences of Social Comparison: Either Direction Has Its Ups and Downs (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1990, Vol. 59, No. 6, 1238-1249)
Research on social comparison processes has assumed that a comparison in a given direction (upward or downward) will lead to a particular affective reaction. In contrast, the present two studies proposed and found that a comparison can produce either positive or negative feelings about oneself, independent of its direction. Several factors moderated the tendency to derive positive or negative affect from upward and downward comparisons
. In Study 1, cancer patients low in self-esteem and with low perceived control over their symptoms and illness were more likely to see downward comparisons
as having negative implications for themselves. Those low in self-esteem were also more likely to perceive upward comparisons
as negative. In Study 2, individuals with high marital dissatisfaction and those who felt uncertain about their marital relationship were more likely to experience negative affect from upward and downward comparisons
. The implications of these findings for social comparisons
theory and for the coping and adaptation literature are discussed.
Study 1 Result Discussion:
The present study produced four sets of results that have relevance to social comparison theory. First, in contrast to much previous theorizing and empirical emphasis, the data revealed that upward and downward comparisons
are not intrinsically linked to particular affective outcomes. Instead, as predicted, we found that people may construe both upward and downward comparisons
as either positive or negative.
Consistent with download comparison theory, the present study found that cancer patients most frequently engaged in self-enhancing downward comparisons
. We had proposed, however, that upward comparisons
could be interpreted in a self-enhancing manner as well. This hypothesis was supported. In fact, a majority of the sample made self-enhancing upward comparisons
, and these occurred nearly as often as self-enhancing downward ones.
Just as both directions of comparison may be interpreted positively, both may also lead to negative self-perceptions. Information that another person is doing worse than oneself can be depressing, as can information that someone is doing better than oneself. Interestingly, in the present study the former took place more often than did the latter: Downward comparisons
more frequently led to negative affect than did upward comparisons
. Respondents tended to be frightened by the experiences of patients who were not recovering from their cancer.
This ability to derive positive or negative affective consequences from social comparisons
was, as evidenced by respondents? examples, not specific to comparisons
of a particular aspect of one?s cancer, such as prognosis or adjustment. There was, however, a tendency for upward comparisons
on the dimension of coping to more often lead to positive affect than those made on other dimensions.
The second important set of findings for social comparison theory concerned the role of moderating factors in the affective consequences of social comparisons
. The ability to avoid negative comparisons
was more true of individuals high in self-esteem and (for downward comparisons
) those who believed they could control the symptoms or course of the disease than of people low on these characteristics. With respect to self-esteem, we had hypothesized that high self-esteem individuals would be more likely to make self-enhancing comparisons
in either direction, and less likely to experience comparisons
as threatening, than would persons lower in self-esteem. Only the latter half of this hypothesis was supported. Whereas self-esteem did not affect the frequency with which comparisons
were seen as positive, low self-esteem persons were significantly more likely to experience negative outcome comparisons
than were persons of high self-esteem.
A similar effect was found with regard to psychological control. Those people who felt they could control their symptoms and the future course of the illness were less likely to feel threatened by exposure to very ill patients. They were not, however, any more likely to focus on the positive implications of another?s successful recovery than were persons who felt their future health was uncontrollable.
Third, the ability to avoid negative comparisons
appears to depend more on the subjective than objective characteristics of the threatening event. We had predicted that prognosis would influence whether one derived hope from the knowledge that others were improving and despair at news of another?s decline. However, the comparer?s prognosis was not related to the frequency with which a comparison was seen as threatening or enhancing. The rating of prognosis was an objective measure, however, and many cancer patients retain the belief that they will recover in spite of indications to the contrary. Indeed, Wood and her colleagues also failed to find an effect of prognosis when using an objective measure to predict enhancing downward comparisons
. Our positive findings concerning control suggest that a subjective measure of respondents? perceived prognosis might have been associated with the ability to derive benefit from comparisons
Finally, self-serving social comparisons
appear to mute the effect of negative information rather than enhance available positive information; that is, both self-esteem and control were associated with fewer negative affect comparisons
, but were unrelated to positive comparisons
General Discussion for Study 1 and Study 2:
Taken together, the findings from two studies examining social comparison processes in different domains have important implications for social comparison theory. Both studies demonstrated that comparison direction (upward or downward) is not intrinsically linked to affect, as the previous literature has often assumed. Rather, both upward and downward social comparisons
are capable of generating positive or negative affective responses, depending on which aspect of the comparison is focused on.
The results from the two studies also show some commonalities in the frequencies of different kinds of comparisons
. Both studies found that positive affect comparisons
were the most common comparisons
reported, with positive downward comparisons
more common than positive upward comparisons
. There are some differences in frequency of types of comparisons
between the two studies. Whereas in Study 1, upward comparisons
evoked positive affect nearly as often as downward comparisons
, in Study 2 upward comparisons
were less potent in generating this effect than were downward comparisons
. In the same vein, in Study 2, upward comparisons
leading to negative affect were more frequent than downward comparisons
leading to negative affect, whereas in Study 1 the reverse was true. Perhaps this difference depends on the two types of events, namely cancer and marriage. In normal situations (such as the evaluation of an ongoing marriage), upward comparisons
may be relatively threatening because they remind people how poorly they are doing, whereas in stressful circumstances (such as undergoing cancer), seeing a positive example may be encouraging and inspiring. Further research is needed to determine whether individuals experiencing an unusual threat interpret comparison information differently from people in normal situations.
Another significant regularity in the data concerns the fact that the moderating variables of self-esteem and controllability (in Study 1) and uncertainty and marital satisfaction (in Study 2) largely affected the frequency of negative affect but not positive affect comparisons
. Taken together, these results tie in with a larger body of literature in social cognition suggesting that there are cognitive filters of selective attention, representation, and recall that help people maintain positive beliefs. Consistent with that body of data, the results suggest that these filters operate more to keep the negative implications of information out of view than to enhance available positive information.
The results concerning self-esteem provide an interesting insight into a current issue in the comparison literature. Our findings are somewhat inconsistent with Wills?s downward comparison theory, which predicts that low self-esteem individuals or individuals under thereat should make a greater number of self-enhancing downward comparisons
. Overall, individuals who evaluated themselves (Study 1) or their situation (Study 2) negatively made substantial numbers of downward comparisons
, but as just noted, they did not derive a greater amount of self-enhancing information as a result. This finding is more consistent with Crocker et al.?s results, which found that high self-esteem individuals were better able than low self-esteem individuals to make comparisons
that are self-serving. Crocker et al.?s data had demonstrated that high self-esteem people make downward comparisons
for this purpose. The present results suggest that high self-esteem individuals are better able to make use of either upward or downward comparisons
for the purpose of self-enhancement than are low self-esteem individuals.
We had predicted that uncertainty would increase comparisons
of all kinds, a prediction that was not upheld. Instead, in Study 2, uncertainty and dissatisfaction regarding one?s marriage related to affective consequences of social comparisons
the same way, namely in terms of more frequent negatively valenced comparisons
. There are at least two possible explanations for this result. One is to argue that uncertainty and dissatisfaction are tapping the same construct. The tow measures were highly correlated. Arguing against this point is the fact that marital dissatisfaction also increased the frequency of positive affect downward comparisons
, a finding that was not mirrored in the uncertainty data. The other explanation maintains that these measures are tapping two separate dimensions, negativity and ambiguity, that have been previously identified in the stress literature as enhancing the perception of stress. Uncertainty and dissatisfaction may both increase the experience of strain, which in turn may increase vigilance to the negative information inherent in social comparisons
. If uncertainty and dissatisfaction are indeed two separate dimensions of marital perceptions, dissatisfaction would seem to create a greater need for self-enhancing downward comparisons
There?re limitations to the studies. The direction of causality cannot be determined for the moderating variables. Those high in self-esteem, control, marital satisfaction, or certainty may make different comparisons
than others, or, alternatively, the avoidance of threatening comparisons
may result in a more positive self-image, elevated perceptions of control, greater certainty in one?s perceptions, or greater satisfaction. As noted earlier, past research has demonstrated that the use of self-enhancing downward comparisons
does improve self-esteem. The avoidance of threatening comparisons
may have the same effect: Avoiding negative comparisons
may be one way in which people high in self-esteem, control, satisfaction, or certainty maintain these perceptions.
The question arises as to whether the results from both studies can be interpreted as evidence of a positivity response bias. There is considerable evidence in the literature that people are biased toward perceiving events positively, a phenomenon that Matlin and Strang have termed the Pollyanna principle. Several factors argue against a response bias interpretation. First, there is little evidence of a positivity bias in these data; rather, negativity is avoided. Second, subjects who reported particular affective consequences of particular comparisons
generally had examples readily available to buttress their perceptions, a finding that suggests that more than an automatic response bias was involved. Third, reports of affective consequences of particular comparisons
varied systematically with perceived control in Study 1 and with dissatisfaction and uncertainty in Study 2, which would not be expected from a simple response bias. Moreover, the question of how to interpret positivity in psychological responses is itself under debate. Rather than representing a response bias, many psychologists have argued that mild positivity is how the majority of people experience a broad array of outcomes and that responses indicating such are not themselves a function of response set, but accurately reflect a mildly positive perception of the world.
The present data have implications for certain long-standing issues in social comparison and coping literatures, particularly how people respond to and cope with forced comparisons
. The comparison environment appears to be somewhat less malleable than was characterized by Festinger. As a result, comparison targets are sometimes forced on the comparer, as in the case of cancer patients exposed to other patients in the waiting room. The present analysis suggests that some people, particularly those who evaluate themselves or their situation positively or those with a sense of personal control, may response to unwanted comparisons
much as they respond to other negative information in their environments, filtering and distorting the data to fulfill their needs and expectations.
The results also have implications for the literature on coping and adaptation. Both Wills and Taylor and Lobel have assumed that the propensity to make downward comparisons
under thereat stems from an augmented need for self-enhancement induced by threat. Yet the results from Study 2 suggests that negative affect comparisons
in both directions are especially augmented by marital dissatisfaction and that positive affect downward comparisons
are slightly lower among those high in marital dissatisfaction relative to those low in marital dissatisfaction. Recall, too, that in Study 1, negative affect downward comparisons
were relatively more prevalent than in Study 2. it appears that the effects of threat on social comparison may be more complex than has been previously assumed. Although threat may produce a propensity for self-enhancing downward comparisons
, it may simultaneously increase all kinds of negative affect comparisons
, an effect that may augment rather than diminish distress. Of relevance too is the finding that persons who feel relatively less control over their health may also be threatened by downward comparison information, rather than comforted by it, as previous theory and results have suggested. Finally, the results of Study 2 suggest that those high in uncertainty, and therefore likely to seek comparison information, are also more likely to feel threatened by what they learn. The conditions that increase or decrease threatening interpretations of comparisons
clearly merit additional study.
Finally, the finding that both upward and downward comparisons
can be used for the purpose of self-enhancement addresses a long-standing question in the literature on social comparisons
; How can people who are in need of self-enhancing feedback make use of better-off others to facilitate eventual change in their standing? If people are not capable of so doing, the presentation of self-esteem could have negative long-term consequences, leading people to ignore strategies of improvement. Our results address this concern, suggesting that people can make use of comparisons
in either direction in order to simultaneously provide useful information and to maintain their positive self-perceptions.
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