How The Social Comparison Theory Affects You

By Nicole Beasley |Updated July 8, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Tanya Harell, LPC

Social Comparison Theory Introduction

None of us are impervious to the impact of other people. Often the impact comes through comparing ourselves to others. This has become increasingly true as a result of social media. Many find themselves wishing their lives were as exciting as glamorous as the lives of others seem to be. This is why it's important to understand how social comparison affects individuals, and how you can keep it from becoming detrimental to your confidence and mental health.

The definition is that "we determine our own social and personal worth based on how we stack up against others. As a result, we are constantly making self and other evaluations across a variety of domains (i.e., attractiveness, wealth, intelligence, success, etc.). Most of us have the social skills and impulse control to keep our envy and social comparisons quiet, but our true feelings may come out in subtle ways."

Going To A Therapist's Office May Not Always Be Feasible

History Of The Social Comparison Theory

The theory began when Leon Festinger, an American social psychologist, suggested that people are constantly seeking truthful self-evaluations, and therefore begin to compare themselves to those around them to gain more clarity. This often builds their sense of identity.

Goals of Social Comparison

When one engages in social comparison, they are usually attempting (consciously or subconsciously) to self-evaluate or self-enhance.

Self-evaluation via the this theory takes place when they choose to compare themselves to someone to gain a better sense of themselves, and where they are in their lives. Each person's goals in this task will influence the evaluation, and normally they will opt to compare to someone who is similar to them on some level or another, usually with at least one major characteristic that they have in common (age, sex, occupation, appearance, etc.) Some posit that the reason for choosing someone with shared traits is that it enhances the self-evaluation, increasing its accuracy.

Another goal in social comparison is often psychological self-enhancement, a.k.a. A self-confidence boost. However, this is quite often a poor assessment, as many inaccurately analyze others (and their comparison to them) to make themselves feel better. Unlike in the self-evaluation, people will not necessarily seek out those who have a similarity to them for comparison. But if they feel threatened or outshined by the person in question, instead of conceding the other may be superior in some way, often they will dismiss the assessment entirely by instead believing they do not have anything in common to compare. If someone is insecure about a certain action or trait, they will often avoid engaging in social comparison in that area for self-enhancement purposes.

Upward And Downward Comparisons

People can make what are referred to as "upward" and "downward" social comparisons

Downward social comparison suggests that individuals compare themselves to people who are "worse off" than themselves. Upward social comparison suggest that individuals compare themselves to people who are "better" off than themselves. For example, if someone wants to feel smart, they may upwardly compare themselves to the top student in the school, or downwardly remind themselves that they have better grades than a student who does not perform as well.

Downward comparisons are considered to be defensive, as assessing yourself about someone who is better off can lower self-esteem.

However, some psychologists believe that upward comparisons can improve one's sense of self, mentally elevating them to that category. These can also be used as a source of inspiration, and offer an incentive to healthily improve oneself to be like the people they look up to.

Most likely, upward comparisons depend on one's point of view and preexisting level of confidence. For example, if someone with low self-esteem looks at a picture of someone extremely attractive, they may become upset, and think of how they would never be able to look the same. However, someone with more confidence might look at the same photograph and think "I kind of look like that," or reference traits that are similar, boosting their view of themselves.

Some believe that the difference between upward and downward comparisons is how they manage to impact our self-esteem. Downward comparisons offer relief and comfort immediately, while upward comparisons create a drive to be better, which in turn enhances confidence.


There are certain moderators to the social comparison that impact their effects, such as self-esteem levels and moods.

If one has high confidence when they engage in comparisons, they are more likely to compare upward than downward, and the effect will be positive. For someone with low self-esteem, the tendency is to compare downward, as comparing upward can have a detrimental effect.

However, regardless of levels of confidence, mood plays a crucial role. When someone is in a bad mood and compares upward, their mood will be elevated (even if they have low self-esteem). Good moods are made even better by these comparisons.


Sometimes, these comparisons can result in competition in social settings. If someone's social status is lower, they will be competitive in an attempt to heighten it. However, if it is higher, they will be particularly diligent in maintaining their position, which may require some level of competition.


There are different models in which social comparison manifest itself, the most common ones being the three-selves, triadic, proxy, and self-evaluation maintenance.

The three-selves model uses two combined theories. The first is that certain desires impact what type of information those who engage in comparison seek, and the second is about how these judgments affect a person. Out of these come the three selves: individual, possible, and collective.

The triadic model asks three questions behind a comparison: preference assessment, belief assessment, and preference prediction.

The proxy model is a model that enables someone to assess whether or not they would be capable of completing a task they have not done before via whether someone else can. For example, if you have never gone to the gym before, but you know a person of similar strength to you can lift 30 pounds, you will be able to ascertain that you likely can lift the same amount.

The self-evaluation maintenance model is simply the idea that we are constantly trying to keep up an accurate understanding of ourselves.

Comparison And Media

When it comes to the media, social comparisons are rampant - especially among women utilizing upward comparison; however, this form is often depressing instead of uplifting, as the upward comparison often seems unattainable instead of being a realistic goal. This has sparked a debate on the morality/ethics behind the use of Photoshop in images being made public, and the need for more inclusive models in advertising. Statistically, although men also make upward comparisons, they are much more common among women.

The advent of social media, especially Facebook and Instagram, has intensified this problem. Studies show that both mood and self-confidence drop while browsing these platforms. This is not only in upwardly comparing regarding appearance but seeing someone; you went to school with getting a better job with you, noticing someone is in a new relationship, etc. The term "FOMO" has also been coined due to a social comparison on social media, which is the Fear of Missing Out on a party, event, or even a television show that "everyone" is watching.

Is Social Comparison Helping Or Harming You?

In the end, it is important to take into account how social comparisons are affecting you, if at all. If you find yourself feeling down when you scroll through your feed, bombarded by lives that seem so much better than yours, social comparison is probably harming you, and you should seek help depending on how serious the issue is. However, if you see friends and acquaintances living exciting, and maybe even seemingly "perfect" lives, and you feel nothing but happy for them, and maybe want to make a few healthy adjustments in your own life to reach some similar goals, then social comparison could actually be helping you, and should not be seen as a negative.

Going To A Therapist's Office May Not Always Be Feasible

If instead, you are engaging in downward comparison, be cognizant of how you feel during and after this assessment. If it makes you feel more at ease, then it most likely is not a problematic behavior. However, if you find yourself wishing ill upon others to boost your confidence, this conduct should be stopped.

Always remain aware that regardless of upward or downward, the social comparison has limited effect in actually analyzing yourself, as many variables are left unaccounted for. Instead, speak to someone who knows you well and asks what they think of you in whatever area you are curious about, or talk to an expert about how you can become your best self, without needing to compare to others.

Dealing With Social Comparison Theory

If you feel that you are constantly comparing yourself to others and it is beginning to take a toll on your mental health, or you simply want to learn more about the this theory, feel free to visit to speak to one of our therapists, all from the comfort of your own home.

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