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Social Comparison Theory


Explanations > Theories > Social Comparison Theory

Description | Research | Example | So What? | See also | References 



We learn about our own abilities and attitudes by comparing ourselves with other people and their opinions. Mostly, we seek to compare ourselves with someone against whom we believe we should have reasonable similarity, although in the absence of such a benchmark, we will use almost anyone.

Upward social comparison occurs where we mostly compare ourselves with people who we deem to be socially better than us in some way. Downward social comparison acts in the opposite direction.


Hornstein et al. dropped a wallet containing some trivial items, a return address, $2 and a letter in midtown Manhattan, then watched what people did when they picked it up. There were two variations, each with a different letter. Some letters were from an articulate English-speaker (who would be like the person picking up the letter) whilst others were from a clear foreigner. Some letters had a positive tone, some were neutral and some were negative. 

Letter from the 'foreigner' led to the wallet being returned around 30% of the time. Letters from the 'native' with positive or neutral tones were returned around 65% of the time, whilst native letters with negative tone were returned only around 10% of the time.

Thus, when the person finding the letter felt similar to the letter-writer, they were more motivated to return the wallet. However, when the letter writer seemed like them, but wrote in a negative way, they 'punished' the person by not returning the wallet. 


To determine how good an artist I am, I will compare myself with a competent friend rather than Michaelangelo or my 4-year-old niece.

So what?

Using it

Find out other people with whom the target people compares themselves, then either get those reference people to adopt the desired action or find a way of persuading the target to select a better reference.


Who are your social references? Are they normal people or have you adopted (or been persuaded to adopt) unreasonable comparisons. Beware of comparing yourself against people whose standards you cannot reasonably attain or who have other attributes which are not so desirable.

See also

Informational Social Influence, Normative Social Influence


Festinger (1954), Hornstein Fisch and Holmes (1968)


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