What is Social Comparison Theory?

social comparison theory

Social comparison is a part of everyday life. We all fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to people who have the career, body, or lifestyle that we covet. Social comparison theory looks at why we do this and the impact that it can have on our mental health.

Social Comparison Theory

Social comparison theory was introduced in 1954 by psychologist Leon Festinger. It suggests that humans have a desire to compare themselves to others as a way of establishing a benchmark to evaluate themselves.[1]

Festinger’s original theory stated that evaluating skills and opinions are vital for human survival. For example, early humans may have compared themselves to those who could hunt better or were able to work out which foods were edible or poisonous. Through evaluation, humans could then set themselves what Festinger termed a level of aspiration, which gave them something to strive for.

The original theory concluded that people compared abilities and opinions with one another, but this has since expanded to include aspects such as emotions as well. More recent theorists have suggested that along with a desire to measure ourselves more accurately, social comparison is also motivated by:

  • Self-evaluation
  • Self-enhancement
  • Self-improvement

Some people engage in social comparison more than others, for example, those with more empathy and lower self-esteem.

Types of Social Comparison

Experts have identified two types of social comparison:

  • Upward social comparison – when people compare themselves those they deem better than them. Upward social comparison can be a powerful motivator to achieve similar results to those we admire.[2]
  • Downward social comparison – when people compare themselves to those they see as worse off than them. It can make people feel better about their abilities or situation.

Social comparison can motivate people and encourage them to work harder to become what they aspire to be. It can also boost their self-esteem when they see other people who are not doing as well, which in turn encourages gratitude and empathy. Alongside this, friendly competition has been proven to be a great motivator, giving people access to peer support and encouraging them to work harder. However, it can also be highly detrimental if it becomes too competitive, especially in an age of social media.

The Downside of Social Comparison Theory

Those who have experienced trauma, high-stress levels, and mental health difficulties in the past often struggle with social comparison. They will often use downward social comparison as a benchmark and can be discouraged rather than motivated when they use upward social comparison as their desired goal may appear unattainable.

For example, social comparison can cause trauma survivors to look at others who may have survived the same or a similar event and question why they aren’t as resilient. In this case, it can have a highly negative effect, potentially causing the person to ruminate further on their trauma, which can negatively affect their recovery.[3]

These comparisons can cause more stress than necessary and significantly lower self-esteem. Social media can be a primary source of comparative stress, as we see others constantly post about fairy-tale lifestyles. It is easy to compare what is happening in our lives to those on social media and become discouraged when what we see doesn’t measure up.

Many studies have demonstrated the adverse effects of social media on our mental health. 60% of people interviewed for one study stated that social media negatively affected their mental health, and 80% said it was easier to be deceived on social media.[4]

Limiting Social Comparison

When people constantly compare themselves to others, it can feel like a never-ending downward spiral. However, there are several steps people can take to limit this comparison and boost self-esteem:

  • Limit social media use – reducing social media use can help stop or limit social comparison. Research from the University of Pennsylvania found that when people limited their use of social media platforms to half an hour a day, they saw significant decreases in loneliness, anxiety, and depression.[5]
  • Find supportive role models – finding supportive role models can help to get out of the trap of downward comparison. This could be anyone from a celebrity to a friend or family member. A supportive role model can encourage people to stop comparing themselves to others while also providing a positive example.
  • Practise gratitude – it is easy for people to compare themselves to others and forget about the good things in their lives. Practising gratitude is an excellent way to focus on positive things rather than constantly picking up on the negative. Even noting down just three things you are grateful for every day can have many benefits. Gratitude practice has been proven to relieve stress and may even be able to change the brain structure in depressed individuals.[6]
  • Identify triggers – certain triggers may prompt people to compare themselves to others. This could be anything, even minor things such as seeing a new post on a social media feed. Making a note of what triggers social comparison can help to limit exposure and assist in creating a plan of action for what to do when it happens.

Limiting social comparison can be challenging; however, becoming consciously aware of when we begin to compare ourselves to others can be incredibly beneficial in breaking a downward cycle.

Social comparison is part of being human. While it is impossible to stop it completely, we can work towards managing it and avoiding the adverse effects it can cause.

If you have a client or know of someone struggling with social comparison, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential programme and outpatient therapies addressing trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).


[1] Festinger L. A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations. 1954;7(2):117-140. doi:10.1177/001872675400700202

[2] Kesici S, Erdogan A. Mathematics anxiety according to middle school students’ achievement motivation and social comparison. Education. 2010;131(1):54-63.

[3] Meyer T, Morina N. Social comparison modulates acute responses to traumatic footage and the development of intrusive memories. Journal of Experimental Psychopathology. January 2022. doi:10.1177/20438087221075889

[4] Silva, Clarissa. “Social Media’s Impact On Self-Esteem”. Huffpost, 2017, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/social-medias-impact-on-self-esteem_b_58ade038e4b0d818c4f0a4e4

[5] Hunt, Melissa G. et al. “No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness And Depression”. Journal Of Social And Clinical Psychology, vol 37, no. 10, 2018, pp. 751-768. Guilford Publications, https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2018.37.10.751. Accessed 8 June 2022.

[6] Kini, Prathik et al. “The Effects Of Gratitude Expression On Neural Activity”. Neuroimage, vol 128, 2016, pp. 1-10. Elsevier BV, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.12.040. Accessed 8 June 2022.