Study: A social comparison theory meta-analysis 60+ years on

Study: A social comparison theory meta-analysis 60+ years on



Gerber, J. P., Wheeler, L., & Suls, J.




These meta-analyses of 60+ years of social comparison research focused on 2 issues: the choice of a comparison target (selection) and the effects of comparisons on self-evaluations, affect, and so forth (reaction). Selection studies offering 2 options (up or down) showed a strong preference (and no evidence of publication bias) for upward choices when there was no threat; there was no evidence for downward comparison as a dominant choice even when threatened. Selections became less differentiable when a lateral choice was also provided. For reaction studies, contrast was, by far, the dominant response to social comparison, with ability estimates most strongly affected. Moderator analyses, tests and adjustments for publication bias showed that contrast is stronger when the comparison involves varying participants’ standing for ability (effect estimates, −0.75 to −0.65) and affect (−0.83 to −0.65). Novel personal attributes were subject to strong contrast for ability (−0.5 to −0.6) and affect (−0.6 to −0.7). Dissimilarity priming was associated with contrast (−0.44 to −0.27; no publication bias), consistent with Mussweiler (2003). Similarity priming provided modest support for Collins (1996) and Mussweiler (2003), with very weak assimilation effects, depending on the publication bias estimator. Studies including control groups indicated effects in response to upward and downward targets were comparable in size and contrastive. Limitations of the literature (e.g., small number of studies including no-comparison control conditions), unresolved issues, and why people choose to compare upward when the most likely result is self-deflating contrast are discussed. (APA PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2018 APA, all rights reserved)

Reconciling Social Comparison Choice and Reaction

The great conundrum of social comparison is why people choose to compare upward when the most likely result is a self- deflating contrast. It would seem more logical to make downward comparisons in order to feel better about oneself, and it is that logic that perpetuates a popular acceptance of downward comparison theory’s second hypothesis. But we think that people do not adequately anticipate the self-deflating contrast, or that the contrasts will be outweighed by other benefits. They think that they will be “almost as good as the very good ones” (Wheeler, 1966), that they will be able to assimilate themselves to a higher level, that they will learn the secrets of being better, and so forth. Women buy fashion magazines that force them into self-deflating contrasts and men do exactly the same thing with fashion and body building magazines (e.g., Grabe, Ward, & Hyde, 2008; Myers & Crowther, 2009). And indeed the magazines may well be worth the candle because of the other benefits that come along with the self-deflating comparisons. There is also the persistent Western belief that we are better than the average peer. We are better drivers, better lovers, and better parents than the average person. The better-than-average effect (BTAE) seems to be due to some factors that are independent of social comparison. Alicke and Govorun (2005) explain it as an “automatic tendency to assimilate positively-evaluated social objects toward ideal trait conceptions” (p. 99; see also Brown, 2012). If you were asked to indicate how kind you are relative to the average person, and if you thought you were generally kind, you would assimilate your view of your kindness to the ideal point on the kindness scale, which would make you kinder than the average person. More cognitive explanations may also contribute to the BTAE, such as the selective recruitment of information about the self because it is more accessible (Dunning, Meyerowitz, & Holzberg, 1989) or applying greater weight to own characteristics in judgment (Chambers & Windschitl, 2004). Regardless of the BTAE’s specific origins, if one goes through life believing and expecting to be better than the average person, upward comparison would seem to be a natural consequence, despite the occasional rude evidence that someone else is better than you.


Although the limited number of studies including no-comparison control groups, sparse representation of some dependent variables, and instances of publication bias leave some questions unresolved, these meta-analyses offer several conclusions.

  • Given the choice, the predominant tendency is to compare upward; threat may temper it, but downward comparison is not a dominant choice.
  • Comparisons are more potent when they are local, involve unknown dimensions, or manipulate the self (rather than a standard).
  • The common response to comparison is contrast. People:
    • Increase their self-evaluations after downward comparison
    • Decrease their self-evaluations after upward comparisons.
    • These effects appear to be approximately equivalent in magnitude.

  • Assimilation, which has been stressed in recent research, appears not to be the default; it requires special priming.
  • Even then, this review indicates those effects are weak and in need of further study. To understand the seeming conflict between the results from the selection and response literatures, we speculate that people presume they are good, but this coexists with “a congenital uncertainty” (de Botton, 2004, p. 8), so they look upward to confirm their closeness to the “better ones,” which often leads, alas, to self-deflation.
  • Although Festinger did not anticipate all of our meta-analytic findings, he recognized that strivings to be similar to others conflicted with the unidirectional drive upward so that social quiescence with respect to abilities would never be attained.
  • We witness this every day in domains as different as income, physical attractiveness, personality and aptitude.
  • Social comparison theory has been extraordinarily generative, not because of the clarity or brilliance of the theory, but because it deals with an inescapable aspect of human life. The theory, as shown by the many unanswered questions in these meta-analyses, needs a new generation of scientists who appreciate the importance of control groups and who recognize the inevitability of social comparison.