What Is Social Comparison and How Should We Study It?

Joanne V.Wood
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 1996, 22(5),

Critical Analysis #1
Amy M. Buddie
Miami University

As research in the area of social comparison expands, a review of a definition and the methodology used to study it is in order. Despite the abundant literature in the area, there is little agreement as to a definition of social comparison. In addition, there are numerous methods being employed to study social comparison, yet it is unclear if these methods are really measuring social comparison accurately. These are the issues that Wood (1996) is addressing in this study.

The first thing that Wood (1996) does is propose a definition of social comparison. She defines social comparison as the process of thinking about information about one or more other people in relation to the self(p.521). The wording of this definition indicates a rather liberal stance; social comparison does not have to be consciously or carefully thought out, nor does the process of social comparison necessarily entail a reaction. An individual can compare herself with someone else and decide that the other person is too dissimilar to warrant making the comparison; hence she disregards the original comparison and no effects of the comparison can be seen. According to Wood (1996), this is still a comparison. This is a contradiction of other definitions previously posited in the literature (Arrowood, 1986) which state that a true social comparison is one in which there is a change in the individual's self-evaluation.

Wood's (1996) expansion of the meaning of social comparison is necessary. One does not have to manifest a change in self-evaluation in order to engage in social comparison. She further expands the definition by stating that social comparison can be made with fictitional characters and stereotypes. For example, elderly people may compare themselves with a stereotype of the frail elderly and conclude that they are in great health, even though few elderly people fit this stereotype.

Social comparison targets can even be products of one's own imagination, according to Wood's (1996) definition. Breast cancer patients sometimes compare themselves with hypothetical others rather than with real people. For example, a respondent may claim I am coping much better than most other patients. She may be comparing herself to hypothetical breast cancer patients and not to anyone in particular. This idea is very similar to the idea of social comparisons with stereotypes; these imaginary comparison others may simply be manifestations of a stereotype. In the breast cancer example, the woman may have felt that she was doing better than others because she was comparing herself with a stereotype of maladjusted breast cancer patients. Wood's (1996) distinction between comparisons with stereotypes and comparisons with imaginary others is a bit unclear, since they can often refer to the same thing.

The second part of this article concerned a review of the current methods used to study social comparison. She divided the procedures into three general categories: the selection approach, the reaction approach, and the narration approach.

The selection approach is the most frequently used, and it examines what information participants seek when making social comparisons. In the rank-order paradigm, subjects take a test and are told that they rank in the middle in terms of performance. They can then choose to see the scores of any other rank. Wood (1996) does not see this method as being ideal. In everyday life, people who receive such a score typically would rather see the distribution of scores or the average score , not just one score of any other rank. Another criticism of this method is that it gives participants information on only one dimension (i.e. the test scores), whereas in everyday life people have information on several dimensions (i.e. gender and age of the comparison others). So the rank-order paradigm does not have real world applications.

Another selection method is the affiliation paradigm, in which participants typically are told that they will experience electric shock and can wait with others also awaiting electric shock or with others who are not. Supposedly subjects who affiliate do so in order to compare emotional reactions. This type of paradigm is problematic, however, in that alternative explanations are possible. Wood (1996) argues that people may wish to affiliate with similar others because they are attracted to them or because they expect them to be more compatible (p.528). These criticisms are not as strong as those for the rank-order paradigm. An individual can be attracted to someone and still engage in social comparison; the two are not mutually exclusive. The person can feel attraction and then compare himself on several dimensions to the other to see if there is a chance of a relationship (i.e. We're both equally attractive so maybe she'll go out with me). It is a confound if social comparison does not occur with the attraction, but it will have to be determined in future research if that is the case. In sum, the alternative explanations that Wood (1996) believes confounds the affiliation studies may well be social comparisons of a different nature.

The second general category of methods used in social comparison research is the reaction approach, which examines the impact of social comparisons. Already this approach has problems, since Wood (1996) does not consider reactions critical to social comparisons. One type of reaction method is called comparative ratings, in which participants rate themselves relative to others on some dimension. For example, the people with breast cancer rated their adjustment compared with others on a scale from much worse than average to much better than average. This seems like a straightforward assessment of social comparison, but Wood (1996) emphatically denies that it is. She claims that people who make such judgments are not considering social information; thus they cannot be making social comparisons.

Her argument is not convincing. She states that a self serving strategy occurs, since people typically make a relative judgment that is favorable to the self. She then goes on to say that there is no reason to call such judgments social comparisons any more than any other self-serving judgments (p.524). It seems, however, that a self serving judgment can still be influenced by social information. Her definition of social comparison included comparisons with stereotypes and imaginary others. IsnUt it possible that when a breast cancer patient indicates that she is doing much better than average, she is invoking the stereotype of shattered breast cancer patients? It is still a comparison, albeit a self-serving one.

Wood (1996) argues that evidence suggests that comparative ratings become even more self-serving under threat even without an alteration in the social information. Consequently, people must not be using social information when they make their ratings. However, there is another possible interpretation of the results. If people feel a threat, they may adjust the stereotype that they hold in a self-serving direction, which would cause the comparative ratings to be more self-serving. They are still making a social comparison; it is a social comparison against the stereotype.

Wood (1996) further supports her view by stating that when participants are asked how they make comparative ratings, they don't mention other people. They seem to ignore the fact that the judgments they were explaining had involved a comparison with others (p.524). However, Wood (1996) has postulated that comparisons do not have to be conscious to occur. It is possible that people are making social comparisons but don't say so because the comparisons are unconscious.

Of course, it is difficult empirically to verify unconscious motivations, but Wood (1996) has left this interpretation open. She may be right in asserting that comparative ratings do not constitute social comparisons, but with so broad a definition of social comparison, alternate explanations are possible.

The third general methodological category is the narration approach; people simply report what comparisons they make in their everyday lives. The obvious problem here is that people may not be able to accurately report their comparisons. They may not be aware of them, or they may not report them because making comparisons can be seen as socially undesirable. People may not want to admit to themselves that they make social comparisons, which is similar to being unaware of them. People can also selectively report the comparisons that they make, perhaps thinking that certain comparisons are unimportant and not worth reporting. Also, recall for comparisons can be distorted by mood or other events.

Future research needs to address these sources of bias in the social comparison methodology. Wood (1996) recommends using the least constraining method as possible, such as narration methods. In using such methods, however, the researcher gives up some control over the variables; there cannot be much experimental manipulation in such studies. Wood (1996) suggests using a mixture of methods in research programs, which seems like a good solution. The researcher can test a specific hypothesis using several different methods to determine what, if any, differences emerge.

This article is sure to stimulate discussion about social comparison and the methods used to study it. It clearly articulates the problems that face contemporary social comparison researchers. Many of the issues raised here are controversial, and not everyone will agree with all of the conclusions, but it is important to raise awareness of possible problems. This article is an important contribution to the social comparison literature.

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Social Psychology / Miami University (Ohio USA) Last revised: Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 17:06:37 . This document has been accessed 1 times since September 30, 1996. Comments & Questions to R. Sherman