The Ups and Downs of Social Comparison

Social comparison is a normal behavior strategy where we seek to better understand our status relating to our ability, opinions, emotional reactions and more, by comparing ourselves to other people. It can be useful because it provides us a way to determine if we are ‘on track’ but it can also be extremely harmful and result in negative thoughts and emotions.

Instead of the desired effect where we assess ourselves against realistic, achievable benchmarks, social comparisons can result in the opposite outcome where we compare ourselves to an unrealistic benchmark and develop low self esteem.

Social comparisons are described as either up or down. When we engage in upward social comparison, we compare ourselves to someone we perceive to be or is performing, better than us. When we engage in downward social comparison, we compare ourselves to someone we perceive to be or is performing, worse than us. The direction of the comparison doesn’t guarantee the direction of the outcome. Both types of social comparison can result in negative and positive effects.

The typical inclination is to compare upwards. This isn’t surprising, most of us want to know how we are performing compared to others who appear to be better off. Sometimes this comparison is motivating, but not always. Here are examples of when upward social comparison is not productive and results in negative behaviors:

  • When the compared person is deemed superior or very different from us, we might not consider them to be a viable comparison.
  • We may exclude those individuals from our social group or isolate ourselves from others.
  • We may handicap ourselves by comparing ourselves to someone who is extremely superior.
  • We may sabotage others so that they perform less well.
  • We may develop feelings of inferiority because we are reminded that we are inferior, leading to negative emotions like depression.

We are more likely to engage in downward social comparisons where our sense of self and wellbeing is under threat; these downward social comparisons make us feel better about ourselves.  Some positive outcomes of downward comparison are:

  • Boosted self esteem
  • Experiencing positive emotions
  • Reducing anxiety

However, downward social comparison might cause us unhappiness because we are reminded that the situation has the potential to worsen, or we may feel resentment toward to the compared individual, which can lead to depression.

We all compare ourselves to others, but some people do this more than others. It is believed people with certain personality traits are more likely to engage in social comparison. Specifically, individuals with the following traits appear to be more likely to compare:

  • Increased public and private self consciousness
  • More empathy and sensitivity to others
  • An interest in how other people feel
  • High narcissism
  • Low self esteem
  • High neuroticism

There is some evidence that increased use of social media is associated with increased negative feelings. One explanation is that we engage in more upward social comparisons on social media than we do in real life which results in feelings of inferiority and envy. This results in:

  • increased depressive symptoms
  • experiencing depressive episodes 3 weeks later
  • lower self esteem
  • lower body image

There are more beneficial ways to increase self esteem, instead of trying to achieve other people’s success so you can feel proud of yourself. We can focus on being grateful for what we have accomplished and the opportunities to always make progress.

Change is hard but it is possible and worth it! You have to start sometime, so why not today? Contact me to schedule your appointment for increasing your self esteem.


Love yourself, you deserve it!

Tina Gray-Siebers, MS, LPC, CCATP