Understanding Social Comparison Theory

Medically reviewed by Lauren Fawley , LPC
Updated May 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

If you have ever found yourself scrolling through social media and comparing yourself to the friends, acquaintances, and influencers you see in your feed, you may already have some idea of how comparison can affect us—it could evoke feelings of motivation and inspiration, or envy and inadequacy. 

However, social comparison theory was developed long before social media became a permanent fixture in our lives, and its principles are deeply embedded in the fabric of human psychology. Here, we’ll explore social comparison theory, its effects, and the role it plays in the modern world.

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What is social comparison theory?

Social comparison theory (SCT), introduced by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954, posits that individuals determine their own social and personal worth based on how they stack up against others. This theory suggests that we have an innate drive to evaluate ourselves, often in comparison with others, to reduce uncertainty in areas where there may not be an objective standard for measurement. 

Through such comparisons, we may gain a sense of our social status, which can affect self-esteem and self-image. SCT has become a fundamental concept in psychology, providing insights into the dynamics of human behavior in various social contexts.

Why do we compare ourselves to others?

The inclination to compare ourselves with others is rooted in a basic human desire for self-evaluation. By understanding where we stand in relation to others, we can navigate social environments more effectively and make adjustments to our behavior and beliefs. 

Comparisons can serve multiple purposes: they can motivate us, help us set goals, and provide comfort through the validation of shared experiences. However, this process can also lead to feelings of inadequacy, envy, and decreased self-esteem, particularly when we perceive ourselves as less successful or less fortunate than those around us. 

Core concepts of social comparison theory

To fully understand social comparison theory, there are a few fundamental concepts worth exploring, including how we compare ourselves to others, to whom we compare ourselves, and how we perceive ourselves as a result of comparison.  

Upward and downward comparisons

Upward and downward comparisons are two pivotal concepts within SCT. 

Upward social comparison occurs when we compare ourselves to others who we perceive to be better off or more skilled. This type of comparison can be motivational, inspiring us to improve or try something new. However, if the gap between oneself and the comparison target is perceived as too large to bridge, it can also lead to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.

Conversely, downward social comparison involves comparing oneself to those who are perceived to be worse off or less skilled. While this can boost self-esteem and provide comfort by putting one's own problems into perspective, it can also foster a sense of complacency or superiority that hinders personal growth.


The principle of similarity plays a crucial role in SCT, as people tend to compare themselves with others who are similar to them in relevant ways. Comparisons are more meaningful and informative when made with peers who share similar backgrounds, experiences, or circumstances. 

This relevance enhances the accuracy of self-assessment and can lead to more realistic goals and expectations. Similarity ensures that the comparisons we make are pertinent to our self-evaluation processes, guiding our perceptions of attainability and relevance.


Competition, both direct and indirect, is an inherent aspect of social comparisons. It can intensify the effects of both upward and downward comparisons, influencing how we perceive our standing relative to others. In competitive contexts, comparisons can become more salient and emotionally charged, affecting motivation, performance, and self-esteem. 

The competitive drive can motivate us to strive for improvement and achievement; however, unfavorable comparisons can also lead to stress, anxiety, and a distorted sense of self-worth.

Effects of social comparison

Social comparison can induce a broad range of psychological outcomes, both positive and negative. Comparisons can affect our emotions, motivation, and behaviors, depending on the direction of the comparison (upward or downward) and the context in which they occur.

  • Emotional impact: Social comparison can elicit a wide spectrum of emotions. Upward comparisons may inspire admiration and motivation but can also lead to envy and feelings of inadequacy. Downward comparisons might provide a temporary boost in self-esteem, but they can also evoke pity, guilt, or a false sense of superiority.
  • Motivation and behavior: While upward comparisons can motivate us, they can also lead to discouragement if the person we compare ourselves to seems superior. Conversely, downward comparisons might, in some circumstances, motivate us to help others or feel gratitude for our own circumstances; in others, however, the result may be complacency.
  • Psychological well-being: Frequent social comparison—especially upward comparisons on social media—has been linked to lower levels of happiness and higher levels of depression and anxiety. The constant evaluation against other people’s “highlight reels” can distort our perception of reality, evoking feelings of dissatisfaction. 
  • Self-perception: Social comparisons can affect the way we see ourselves, reinforcing or challenging our self-conceptions. This can lead to either a more positive or negative self-view, depending on the outcomes of the comparisons. 
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Comparison and media

Statistics show high social media use among teens and young adults. Besides the inattentional blindness of excessive cellphone use, social comparisons in media have become rampant, especially among women utilizing upward comparison. However, this form of social comparison may be more harmful than good.

Popular media and its influence on vulnerable groups have sparked a debate on the morality/ethics behind using Photoshop in public images and the need for more inclusive models in advertising. Statistically, although men also make upward comparisons, they are much more common among women.

Social media has intensified this problem. Studies show that both mood and self-confidence drop while browsing social media platforms. Comparisons may be the culprit for this. Someone who perceives another person online as more beautiful, successful, or interesting may feel depressed, anxious, or angry when viewing them.  

Is social comparison helping or harming you?

Ask yourself how social comparison impacts your own life. If you feel down when you scroll through your social media feed or when someone you know enters a new relationship you envy, social comparison may harm you. In this case, getting help from a counselor or taking a social media break may be valuable.

However, if you feel inspired and happy for friends when you make upward comparisons, it may mean that the social comparison process is positively helping you. 

If you are making a downward comparison, be mindful of how you feel during and after this assessment. Such downward comparisons might make you feel more at ease; in that case, it may not be a harmful behavior. However, if you find yourself feeling jealous or inadequate, these could be signs that using social media in this way could be negatively impacting you.

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Getting help 

Regardless of whether you partake in upward or downward comparisons, you may find your self-analysis abilities are limited through this lens. You may find that comparing contributes to feelings of sadness, fear, or anger. If you're struggling with an intense desire to compare yourself to others that is harming you in some way, getting help may be an option.

For those who feel comfortable building connections online, online therapy may be a helpful option. With online therapy, you can meet with an expert in various subjects, including social comparison and its impact. Mindfulness-based talk therapy can be valuable for those dealing with social anxiety or social-related depression as it can help people focus their attention inward rather than outward. 

If you feel you are constantly comparing yourself to others and it is taking a toll on your mental health, consider reaching out for online therapy through sites like BetterHelp.

Below are some reviews from users of BetterHelp that found support through the platform for similar issues.

User reviews

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Social comparison may feel isolating, despite its social components. If you're struggling with comparing yourself to others, either upwardly or downwardly, you may benefit from speaking to someone. Consider taking the first step and connecting with a compassionate therapist.

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