Social Comparison: Benefits And Risks Of Comparing Yourself To Others

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Comparing yourself to another person—also known as “social comparison”—can potentially impact you in ways you might not expect. On the one hand, comparing yourself to others in a healthy, positive way can potentially benefit your self-esteem or inspire you toward healthy self-improvement. Conversely, social comparison that takes on a more negative form can lower self-esteem and even increase your risk of depression. Understanding how social comparison works and how the disadvantages appear can help you look out for this tendency in yourself and manage it accordingly if it does occur.

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Feeling distress from comparing yourself to others?

Why do we compare ourselves to others?

Many are familiar with the conventional wisdom concerning social comparison: that comparison is the thief of joy, as Theodore Roosevelt put it. It turns out that research supports this claim as well. Studies have long suggested that social comparison has the potential to significantly lower self-esteem and reduce overall well-being. Why, then, do many of us seem to seek out opportunities to compare ourselves to others?

Since the mid-20th century, researchers have proposed theories to try and explain social comparison's psychological and sociological mechanisms. One of the first theories to gain mainstream consideration, social comparison theory, was proposed by Leon Festinger in 1954. Festinger, an American psychologist, hypothesized that everyone has an inherent drive to gain “accurate self-evaluations” by comparing themselves to others.

Later, other researchers expanded social comparison theory to explore its relationship to cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance theory states that people have a fundamental drive to maintain consistency among their cognitive systems. In the case of social comparisons, a self-evaluation that does not align with a person's sense of self represents a significant inconsistency, resulting in dissonance. When this cognitive dissonance occurs, individuals may be motivated to make changes that aim to align their sense of self with the results of their social comparisons.

The two directions of social comparison

The release of Festinger's social comparison theory spurred new research into social comparison over the next several decades. Much of this research was concerned with the direction of social comparison, a concept that Festinger describes only briefly. Studies eventually split social comparison into two directions: upward and downward.

Upward social comparison

Upward social comparison refers to how individuals evaluate themselves against those they perceive as superior in a particular area. Upward comparisons closely align with Festinger's theory of human drive for accurate self-evaluation as described in his original social comparison theory. In the early days of social comparison research, upward comparisons were thought to usually result in negative self-evaluations and lowered self-esteem.

However, more recent research indicates that the relationship between upward comparisons and self-evaluations is more complicated. In some cases, upward comparisons can increase self-esteem and may even serve an important motivational function. However, research also confirms the original hypothesis that upward comparisons can lead to lower self-appraisal and feelings of cognitive dissonance in some cases.

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Downward social comparison

Downward social comparison refers to the processes by which individuals evaluate themselves against those they perceive to be inferior in a particular area. If one compares themselves to another and finds themselves to be superior, they may feel a distinct sense of superiority, which can increase self-esteem and bolster self-worth. Because of this, early social comparison research considered downward social comparisons to be protective, as they were thought to occur primarily when a person was in psychological distress.

However, as with upward comparisons, later research revealed more nuance and complexity than was initially understood. In many circumstances, downward comparisons work as described: Individuals who feel threatened in a particular dimension may use downward comparison to make themselves feel better about their evaluation in that dimension. In other cases, however, downward comparison can worsen psychological distress by reminding the individual that things could get worse, or by making them feel guilty for judging themselves as superior over another person.

Social comparisons, similarity, and self-esteem

Based on the research described above, it’s clear that social comparison can have both advantages and disadvantages. If that’s the case, what factors determine whether a social comparison will be advantageous? Over the last several decades, researchers have offered some insight into this question. Two discoveries have been of particular importance: the idea that both similarity and self-esteem seem to influence how a social comparison impacts a person's self-evaluation.

The role of similarity

Festinger's original social comparison theory proposed that individuals were more likely to compare themselves to others that they felt similar to in the domain being compared. While research has generally supported that conclusion, more recent studies have drawn other conclusions that paint a more complete picture of how this seems to work.

In the 1990s, researchers investigated the role of social comparison theory among those undergoing treatment for breast cancer. The research team expected that, in accordance with social comparison theory, the patients would prefer to compare themselves with other cancer patients in worse condition than themselves, a downward comparison which—in theory—would bolster their own well-being.

The results of the study contradicted the researcher's expectations. They indicated that upward comparisons—or comparisons to other patients with less severe forms of the illness—produced more psychological benefit than downward comparisons. In fact, downward comparisons— comparisons to other patients with more severe health concerns—were less desired by the individuals and more likely to produce psychological distress.

In the above study as well as in later studies, it was discovered that upward comparisons were more likely to produce a positive effect when people compared themselves to individuals with whom they considered themselves very similar. The cancer patients preferred to see themselves as similar to those who were healthier and viewed themselves as dissimilar to those experiencing more significant health concerns.

The role of self-esteem

As mentioned above, one of the most significant disadvantages of social comparisons is their ability to lower self-esteem. Early research into social comparisons initially considered upward comparisons as those which reduce self-worth and downward comparisons as those which increase it. However, contemporary research suggests that the level of self-esteem a person has before making a social comparison can affect the comparison's impact.

Those with high self-esteem are more likely to consider themselves favorably and find more in common with those they consider superior when making upward comparisons. They are also likely to make fewer upward comparisons overall. Conversely, those with low-self esteem tend to make more upward comparisons and are more likely to experience negative impacts from them.

High self-esteem may serve a protective function that allows individuals to make social comparisons that promote growth and self-improvement. It may also make it more likely that individuals will consider themselves to be similar to those they’re comparing themselves to when making upward comparisons, and dissimilar when making downward comparisons.

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Feeling distress from comparing yourself to others?

Managing the disadvantages of social comparison

Based on contemporary research, one of the best ways to avoid the disadvantages of social comparison is to maintain high self-esteem. Of course, the most straightforward way to prevent the negative impacts of social comparison is to avoid comparisons altogether, but that’s often not possible. Researchers believe that social comparisons are often automatic and likely serve a valuable purpose in some cases. So while consciously minimizing the number of social comparisons a person makes is likely a good step toward reducing their impact, improving self-esteem is more likely to be helpful when it comes to our largely unconscious, automatic comparisons.

Here are a few tips for increasing your self-esteem:

  1. Speak positively about yourself. Negative self-talk, or frequently diminishing your own accomplishments and putting yourself down, seems to significantly lower self-esteem. Instead, you might try to recognize and articulate your own positive traits and speak to yourself with kindness and compassion, as you would a close friend.
  2. Start a positivity journal. When you receive compliments or accomplish something you’re proud of, you might consider writing this down in a dedicated journal. Then, whenever you’re feeling down about yourself, you can look back at these reasons to adopt a kinder, more positive view of who you are and what you’ve achieved.
  3. Adopt a growth mindset. A growth mindset accepts the reality of failure and sees it as necessary for success. Viewing your failures as an inevitable part of growth may help mitigate the harmful effects of social comparisons. For example, it may help you adopt the view that while you might not yet be at the level you want to be, you’re well on your way to reaching your goal.
  4. Be thoughtful about social media use. As usage of social media has increased, so have examinations of its effects on self-esteem. For example, one paper on the topic from 2020 reports that these platforms encourage unhelpful social comparison, since users tend to present idealistic versions of themselves there. So as you might imagine, comparing your real self and life to a version of someone else’s that’s been distorted and isn’t actually real can be detrimental. Limiting social media use and thinking critically about what you see there may help.

How therapy may help

Another method you might try for increasing self-esteem is attending therapy. With a modality like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in particular, a counselor can help you learn to recognize distorted and untrue thoughts about yourself and learn to replace them with more realistic, compassionate, and positive ones. If you’re experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression, or another mental health condition as a result of harmful social comparison, they can help you address these as well.

If attending in-person sessions with a therapist is inconvenient or uncomfortable for you, you might consider online therapy instead. With a platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging from the comfort of home. Research suggests that online therapy can be as effective as traditional in-person therapy in many cases, so you can generally feel comfortable with whichever platform works best for you.

Takeaway

Social comparisons are a normal part of interacting with others. Researchers believe that they may even play a valuable role in helping a person adapt to their surroundings. However, when these comparisons become too frequent or extreme, they can negatively impact self-esteem and overall well-being. Consciously limiting the tendency to make comparisons and utilizing strategies for building self-esteem may help. If you’re looking for support in this area, you might consider meeting with a therapist.

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