How social comparison theory affects our everyday lives

Beth Bradford

October 25, 2022, 10:28:30 AM

Social comparison theory posits that we compare ourselves to others in order to assess our own worth.

Social psychologist Leon Festinger, who is known for his Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, used running as an example of how we compare our abilities to others. In deciding our ability to do well in a race, we look at the running times of similar others.

In developing Social Comparison Theory, he describes our desire to compare our opinions and abilities to others. In the case of running, we can easily determine if we’re faster or slower than another. But what defines “good?”

In this case, “good” is a matter of opinion. Because there is no objective standard of “good” or “bad” runner, we seek community to decide for us.

For example, we might join a running group when we first start running. We love the community support, and perhaps we compare our times with others. This sharing is good for us, and it helps us to improve.

We might also join a running group that is slightly more competitive. Depending on the nature of the members of the group, it can influence how competitive we are. It can also influence how we feel about ourselves.

This group might make us feel “slow” or “bad” if their running times are faster than ours. Or we might feel euphoric running with them because we feel “fast” or “strong” in comparison with them.

However, these comparisons are only relative. In larger competitions, you definitely know who is the fastest. Sometimes the fastest runners might not even attend that race, so even those ideas of superiority or inferiority are only relative.

When it comes to our desire to belong, our social groups weigh heavily on our opinions. Festinger writes that if there is a discrepancy between the opinions of our social groups and our own opinion, we move our opinions closer towards our social groups in our desire to conform. This is what’s commonly known as peer pressure.

Festinger adds that the more we desire to belong to a group, the more pressure we have to conform to the dominant ideas of the group.

Therefore, our need to belong might thwart our authentic beliefs. Depending upon how “social” we are, we are continually assessing the opinions and abilities of others.

As research on this theory progressed, it focused on how we use others for self-enhancement. For example, if we want to feel better about ourselves, we compare ourselves to those who are “worse off” than we are.

However, what if we shed our need to belong? What if we could be ourselves without caring whether or not others approve of us?