Social Comparison Theory

Festinger's social comparison theory is one of the great theoretical formulations in the field of social psychology. Learn more.
Social Comparison Theory
Gorka Jiménez Pajares

Written and verified by el psicólogo Gorka Jiménez Pajares.

Last update: 02 March, 2023

Social comparison is a natural occurrence. Human beings are incapable of resisting the gravitational pull of comparing ourselves to other people. This happens because we’re relational and gregarious creatures. The behaviors of other people act as guides that lay the foundations for our way of perceiving and interpreting the world.

What parts of our “I” are nourished by social comparisons? One of them is self-concept, or the concept that we develop of ourselves, and refers to the number and type of roles that we acquire and exercise throughout our life journey. Therefore, these roles are revealed in the groups to which we belong.

We can’t reach a complete knowledge of what we’re like if we don’t include our group membership in our self-concept.

-Elena Gaviria Stewart-

What is self-concept?

A woman looking out at the ocean at sunset with her hands in the air, making two thumbs up.
Self-concept is built spontaneously, but it’s important to consciously deepen it to achieve greater emotional intelligence.

How much do you know about yourself? Who are you? Self-concept refers to the degree of information we have about ourselves.

It’s formed by the roles we play (father, son, brother, psychologist, athlete, writer), the contexts in which we develop (home, school, university, work), by the activities we carry out (analytical, creative, careful), the traits that characterize us (fun, friendly, responsible) and the state of mind we have in each situation.

Self-concept refers to the collection of abilities, temperaments, goals, values, and preferences that distinguish one person from another.

-Elena Gaviria Stewart-

There are different ways that allow us to generate information about ourselves. The first is to draw conclusions about our behaviors. According to Bem’s self-perception theory, we build mental models of what we’re like through attributions of our behaviors. That is, we assign ourselves traits and labels that explain the causes of our behavior, for example, I passed this very difficult exam because I’m intelligent.

The second path we take to get to know ourselves more is through social comparison. We compare our behaviors, opinions, and skills to those of others. And we do it with people who may be similar or different from us, from the same group, or from an external social group that we don’t belong to.

Every person needs to have an image of themselves that allows them to be unique.

-Elena Gaviria Stewart-

What is identity?

Identity is the result of a long construction process that begins in childhood and is far from culminating in old age. It’s the sum of “the personal”. It’s built thanks to elements, people, ideas, values, and beliefs with which we identify ourselves but also with those that are far from representing us.

It means putting color on a white canvas, which stands out and causes an impact. The people who are significant to us, the roles we play, and the assessments that others make of us play an important role in our identity.

Identity is also knowledge whose objective is to describe ourselves while considering other people and other groups with which we identify. It’s the result of our relationships and the reactions and thoughts we hold in reference to them. But they’re also the beliefs and evaluations that others transmit to us, that is, what others think we are.

Identity can be personal when it alludes to the traits contained in self-concept (I like to read, I like rap music), but it can also be social. Social identity refers to the traits that we attribute to relationships with others. It arises from contact with other people, for example, I’m Jade’s boyfriend or I’m more outgoing than Paula but less than Andy.

Social identity is the part of the individual self-concept that derives from the knowledge of belonging to a social group (or social groups) together with the emotional and value meaning that said belonging entails.

-Elena Gaviria Stewart-

Social comparison

Social comparison theory was born in 1954 by the prestigious expert in social psychology Leon Festinger. It focuses on how we learn about ourselves through comparison with other people on an inter-individual level (me regarding another subject) but also on an inter-group level (the group I am a part of regarding a different group).

An interesting effect of social comparison is that of “shining with the glory of others”, which for Elena Gaviria consists of “the tendency to ally or strengthen the alliance with desirable people or groups for some reason (generally because they’ve been successful) to improve the impression that others have of oneself.

Somehow within us, there’s an engine that drives us to obtain accurate self-assessments. To achieve this, we stand before the way in which others present themselves and compare ourselves in terms of our beliefs, opinions, and abilities.

The objective is twofold: On the one hand, reducing the uncertainty that a lack of self-knowledge in some aspect may entail, and, on the other, increasing the precision with which we define ourselves.

The similarity hypothesis

A man and woman having coffee together.
There are many situations in everyday life in which the comparison is present, either positively or negatively.

For Festinger, it’s more comfortable for us to compare ourselves with other people who are similar to us because we connect more. Specifically, we do it in different areas:

  • When it comes to abilities and skills, we tend to compare ourselves with those we consider to be more skilled than us. This happens because we’re guided by the desire to improve, grow, and enhance our skills.
  • As for opinions, we have a preference for people who think differently from us. Why? The reason can be found in that, despite thinking differently from us, if they end up agreeing with our opinions, this will make us assert ourselves in our positions. If, on the contrary, we fail to reach a common understanding, we’ll develop a more hostile position.
  • Regarding uncomfortable situations, we show a tendency to compare ourselves with people who are going through situations similar to ours. The capacity for empathy is a powerful vehicle that allows us to release tension, and that’s why we seek to compare ourselves with those people with whom we empathize.
  • Regarding mood, people with a low emotional state can enhance and improve it through social comparison with people who are in similar or worse situations.

As we’ve seen, Festinger’s social comparison theory is closely related to two key concepts in social psychology: Our self-concept and our identity.

Social comparison thus constitutes a way that nourishes and provides richness to the knowledge we have of ourselves but also of those around us.

  • Elena, G. S. (2023). INTRODUCCIÓN A LA PSICOLOGÍA SOCIAL 3a Edición. Editorial Sanz y Torres, S.L.
  • Castillo, J. A., García-Castillo, F., Dias, P. C., & Castillo-López, Á. G. D. (2021). La teoría de la comparación social como promotora de las conductas de salud: una aproximación teórica. Health and Addictions/Salud y Drogas, 21(2), 149-163.
  • Gómez-Jacinto, L. (2005). Comparación social y autoevaluación desde un enfoque evolucionista. Escritos de Psicología-Psychological Writings, 1(7), 2-14.
  • Lisbona, A. (2010). Introducción: Teoría de la identidad social y algunas aplicaciones actuales. Revista de Psicología Social, 25(2), 185-188.
  • Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human relations, 7(2), 117-140.
  • Giménez, G. (2007). La identidad social o el retorno del sujeto en sociología. Versión. Estudios de Comunicación y Política, (2), 183-205.

Este texto se ofrece únicamente con propósitos informativos y no reemplaza la consulta con un profesional. Ante dudas, consulta a tu especialista.