Social Comparison Theory

The theory of social comparison was first outlined by Leon Festinger in 1954. Festinger (1954) describes social comparison as a driving force in human motivation. The theory recognises the innate human need to evaluate oneself (Festinger, 1954) and, in situations where physical evidence is unavailable, to evaluate oneself by comparing their characteristics with those of another (Mochis, 1973). According to Morse and Gergen (1970), individuals compare themselves to several different types of individuals, including those in real life and those seen in mass media. However, individuals do not compare themselves to others who are too different to themselves (Festinger, 1954).

One of the main postulates of Festinger’s (1954) theory is that comparison occurs through upwards or downwards comparison.

  • Upwards comparison is described as an individual comparing themselves to others who possess socially desirable characteristics as a way to evaluate oneself and to facilitate self-threat and/or self-enhancement, depending on the individual (Muller & Fayant, 2010).
  • Downwards comparison is when an individual compares themselves to another who has non-socially desirable characteristics, as a way of boosting self-esteem (Wills, 1981).

Existing literature (Muller & Fayant, 2010) outlines the importance of the Morse and Gergen (1970) study in defining the process and implications of upward and downward comparison. 78 men from Michigan University were studied and presented with a mock interview waiting room. The participants were placed in a waiting room and asked to fill out a self-evaluation form. Then, the men were presented with either a socially desirable stimulus (Mr. Clean) or a non-socially desirable stimulus (Mr. Dirty). ‘Mr. Clean’ looked professional, wearing a full suit and holding a psychology textbook and exuding confidence. On the other hand, ‘Mr. Dirty’ was wearing tattered clothes, no socks and looked confused when asked to fill out any forms. Morse and Gergen (1970) looked to examine two variables: utility of comparison and the personality of the individual. Utility of comparison illustrates that some situations are more useful for comparison that others. Half the subjects in this study encountered an individual in a high utility situation, in which the participant and the stimulus were competing for the same job. The remaining subjects were exposed to the same stimuli in a non-competitive, low-utility setting. Morse and Gergen hypothesised that the second variable, the personality of the individual, that there is a higher rate of self-esteem change in individuals with inconsistent self-concept than those with consistent self-concept. The study used the Californian Psychological inventory scales to create the Gergen-Morse self-consistency scale, which participants filled out before encountering the stimuli (Morse & Gergen, 1970).

The study found that the most drastic self-esteem change was in individuals with inconsistent self-concepts. Through their research, Morse and Gergen (1970) effectively illustrate the principal of upwards and downwards comparison. When presented with a socially desirable stimuli (Mr. Clean), participants’ self-esteem levels decreased through upwards comparison, when presented with a socially undesirable person, self-esteem levels increased thus illustrating downwards comparison.

Social comparison can produce both positive and negative effects. For example, upwards social comparison can be used as a motivational factor for self-enhancement and self-improvement (Collins, 1996; Taylor et al., 1996). Self-enhancement can be defined as the want to evaluate oneself in the most positive light (Pfeffer & Fong, 2005). Upwards comparison can be useful as it can motivate an individual to become like the person they compare themselves to (Collins, 2000). Upwards social comparison also yields many adverse effects, especially online social comparison. Both Alfasi (2019) and Turk (2021) investigate the negative impact of online social comparison on self-esteem levels. Social media users tend to display an idealized image of their lives and individuals may feel a sense of shame and guilt about the quality of their own lives because of this. In a study conducted by Alfasi (2019), it was found that users who consumed the social content on Facebook had lower rates of self-esteem and higher depression levels than those who consumed non-social media. Similarly, Turk (2021) used the Differential Media Effects Model by Valkenburg and Peter (2013) to assess the link between female undergraduates’ Instagram use and their social comparison behaviours. They concluded that passive Instagram use led to an increase in social comparison behaviour and as a result, an increase in contingent self-worth and decreased self-esteem.

Social comparison theory is often utilized in advertising. Richins (1995) outlines the use of audience comparison through idealized imagery. Consumers compare their own lives to those in idealized advertising and feel that they ought to be like the individuals in the advert. They will then purchase the product in hopes of reducing this discrepancy (Richins, 1995). Upwards social comparison is more often used in advertising than downward social comparison. There are several adverse effects associated with the use of idealized imagery. Gulas and McKeage (2000) outline that the use of idealized imagery creates unrealistic body standards and as a result, can lead to reduced psychological well-being and in some circumstances, cosmetic surgery and eating disorders. Idealized imagery also lowers an individual’s standard view of attractiveness, in both themselves and in others (Richins, 1991).

Social comparison theory successfully explains that an individual compares themselves in order to evaluate themselves. Both upwards and downwards social comparison exist, however, upwards comparison is more common in advertising and results in more negative effects to one’s self-esteem and psychological well-being. This occurs in marketing, specifically by using idealized imagery, which, although is a successful technique in selling products, preys on a consumer’s self-esteem.


Alfasi, Y. (2019). The grass is always greener on my friends' profiles: The effect of Facebook social comparison on state self-esteem and depression. Personality and Individual Differences, 147, 111–117.

Collins, R. L. (1996). For better or worse: The impact of upward social comparison on self-evaluations. Psychological Bulletin, 119(1), 51–69.

Collins, R. L. (2000). Among the better ones: Upward assimilation in social comparison. In J. Suls & L. Wheeler (Eds.), Handbook of social comparison: Theory and research (pp. 159–171). Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7(2), 117-140.

Gulas, C. S., & McKeage, K. (2000). Extending social comparison: An examination of the unintended consequences of idealized advertising imagery. Journal of Advertising, 29(2), 17–28.

Morse, S., & Gergen, K. J. (1970). Social comparison, self-consistency, and the concept of self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 16(1), 148–156.

Moschis, G. P. (1976). Social comparison and informal group influence. Journal of Marketing Research, 13(3), 237-244.

Muller, D., & Fayant, M. P. (2010). On being exposed to superior others: Consequences of self-threatening upward social comparisons. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4(8), 621-634.

Pfeffer, J., & Fong, C. T. (2005). Building organization theory from first principles: The self-enhancement motive and understanding power and influence. Organization Science, 16(4), 372–388.

Richins, M. L. (1991). Social comparison and the idealized images of advertising. Journal of Consumer Research, 18(1), 71–83.

Richins, M. L. (1995). Social comparison, advertising, and consumer discontent. American Behavioral Scientist, 38(4), 593–607.

Suls, J., Martin, R., & Wheeler, L. (2002). Social comparison: Why, with whom, and with what effect? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(5), 159–163.

Taylor, S. E., Wayment, H. A, & Carrillo, M. (1996). Social comparison, self-regulation, and motivation. In R. M. Sorrentino & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of motivation and cognition, Vol. 3. The interpersonal context (pp. 3–27). The Guilford Press.

Turk, Y. (2021). Active and passive Instagram use: Female undergraduate’s social comparison behaviors, self-esteem, and contingent self-worth. Doctoral dissertation: Muhlenberg College.

Valkenburg, P. M., & Peter, J. (2013). The differential susceptibility to media effects model. Journal of Communication, 63(2), 221–243.

Wills, T. A. (1981). Downward comparison principles in social psychology. Psychological Bulletin, 90(2), 245–271.