Social Comparison Processes and Well-Being

by Pieternel Dijkstra and Abraham P. Buunk

Social Comparison Processes and Well-Being

Social comparisons – comparing one’s own situation, characteristics, or achievements with those of others – are an essential part of human social life. Especially in times of change, adversity, and stress, social comparisons with others may provide us with information on how to best cope with the challenges of life and give us a sense of security. Research shows that the way we make these comparisons is related to several indices of well-being, such as how self-competent, happy and satisfied we feel. Understanding how social comparisons affect people’s well-being is important because it may help us develop interventions to assist people in making those social comparisons that maintain or enhance their well-being. What types of social comparisons do people make, and what effect can these comparisons have on their well-being? How can people make social comparisons that may enhance rather than diminish their well-being? 

Types of Social Comparisons

People can make different types of social comparisons. They may compare themselves with others who are better off (upward comparisons) or with others who are worse off (downward comparisons). What effect these social comparisons have on how people feel, think and behave depends on how they interpret their position toward the person with whom they compare themselves. Do they contrast themselves with the other person; that is, use the other as standard to evaluate themselves? Or do they identify with the other person; that is, use the other as a reflection of themselves, and focus on the similarities between themselves and that other person? This combination – choice of person and interpretation – results in four types of social comparisons: upward identification, upward contrast, downward contrast, and downward identification. 

In general, well-being is enhanced if people engage in upward identification or downward contrast. Conversely, it is lowered if people engage in upward contrast or downward identification. For example, imagine a woman who is seriously ill and who is admitted to the hospital. She will most likely compare herself with other fellow patients with the same illness that she meets in the hospital.  Comparing herself with fellow patients who are worse-off (downward comparisons) may make her feel either good or bad, depending on whether she identifies with or contrasts to these fellow patients. If she contrasts herself (downward contrast) she may tell herself: "I am lucky! At least I am not in such a bad shape as they are." As a consequence she may feel relieved and grateful, even though she is ill. However, if she identifies with fellow patients who are worse off than she is (downward identification), she may become anxious and worry that she may end up just like them. Something similar may occur if the woman makes an upward comparison and compares herself with patients who are healthier than she is. If she contrasts herself to these patients (upward contrast) she may think: "I will never be as healthy as they are" and feel depressed as a consequence. Instead, if she identifies herself with them (upward identification) she may feel reassured and inspired and ask herself what these patients did to recover so well. She may say to herself: "If they have become healthy, I can become healthy too" and feel motivated to engage in behaviors that benefit her health. She may, for instance, start eating healthier, just as her better-off fellow patients do.

Promoting Social Comparisons that Enhance Well-being

People might be able to enhance their well-being by making better use of those social comparisons that increase well-being. To promote upward identifications, for example, professionals (e.g., counselors, coaches, therapists, teachers) may help people identify people that they perceive as inspiring role models and whose accomplishments they perceive as attainable. They may help people become more aware of their similarities with the comparison person by asking questions such as: "In what way do you resemble this person?" and "What could you learn from this person that may be useful to you?". In addition, they may empower people with the skills, information, and tools they need to achieve what the other person has achieved. Likewise, a professional may stimulate people to make more effective downward contrasts by asking them to think about ways in which they are better off than others. For instance, in the communication with patients with chronic illnesses, health professionals may ask patients about those aspects of their lives in which they are doing better than fellow patients and ask them to reflect on their feelings when talking about these aspects. Ideally, encouraging social comparisons that enhance well-being should take place before people experience lowered well-being and before, for example, they get ill or depressed. Preferably this should be done at a young age because the popularity of social media means that young people compare themselves with others more than ever. Parents and teachers may make young people aware of the social comparisons they make and learn how to handle those comparisons constructively.

Pieternel Dijkstra works as an independent author, researcher and lecturer for several institutions of higher education in The Netherlands, such as the NCOI University of Applied Sciences, The University of Groningen and the University of Curaçao.

Abraham P. Buunk is an Honorary Academy Professor at the University of Groningen. He is also affiliated with the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute, and the Universidad Catolica del Uruguay.

Suggested readings

Buunk, A.P. & Dijkstra, P.  (2017). Social comparison and well-being. In: M.D.

Robinson & M. Eid (Eds.), The happy mind: Cognitive contributions to well-being (3011-330). Springer.

Dijkstra, P. & Buunk, A.P. (2018). In: J.E. Maddux (Ed.), Social comparison processes. In:

Subjective well-being and life satisfaction (pp. 230-252). Abingdon, UK: Taylor & Francis.

Dijkstra, P., & Kuyper, H., Buunk, A. P., Van der Werf, G. & Van der Zee, Y. (2008). Social

comparison in the classroom: A review. Review of Educational Research, 78, 828-879.