Social Comparison Theory in Psychology

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Social comparison theory suggests that people value their own personal and social worth by assessing how they compare to others. Introduced by Leon Festinger in 1954, the theory describes the comparison processes people utilize to evaluate their actions, accomplishments, and opinions in contrast to those of other people.

We all compare ourselves to others in our social worlds, whether by comparing our looks to those of celebrities we see in the media or our talents to those of our coworkers. In psychology, social comparison theory is one explanation for this tendency we have to make comparisons between ourselves and others.

Let's take a closer look at how social comparison theory works and how the comparisons we make influence the views we may hold of ourselves.


Social comparison theory was first proposed in 1954 by psychologist Leon Festinger and suggested that people have an innate drive to evaluate themselves, often in comparison to others. People make all kinds of judgments about themselves, and one of the key ways that we do this is through social comparison, or analyzing the self in relation to others.

For example, imagine that a high school student has just signed up for band class to learn how to play the clarinet. As she evaluates her skills and progress, she will compare her performance to other students in the class.

She might initially compare her abilities to the other members of the clarinet section, particularly noting those who are better than her as well as those who are worse. She may also compare her abilities to those of students who play other instruments as well.

Psychologist Leon Festinger believed that we engage in this comparison process as a way of establishing a benchmark by which we can make accurate evaluations of ourselves.

For example, a music student might compare herself to the star student of the class. If she finds that her abilities do not measure up to her peer's talents, she might be driven to achieve more and improve her abilities.

How Social Comparison Process Works

The social comparison process involves people coming to know themselves by evaluating their own attitudes, abilities, and traits in comparison with others. In most cases, we try to compare ourselves to those in our peer group or with whom we are similar. There are two kinds of social comparison—upward social comparison and downward social comparison.

Upward Social Comparison

This takes place when we compare ourselves with those who we believe are better than us. These upward comparisons often focus on the desire to improve our current status or level of ability. We might compare ourselves to someone better off and look for ways that we can achieve similar results.

Downward Social Comparison

This takes place when we compare ourselves to others who are worse off than us. Such downward comparisons are often centered on making ourselves feel better about our abilities or traits. We might not be great at something, but at least we are better off than someone else.

People compare themselves to those who are better when they want inspiration to improve, and they compare themselves to those who are worse when they want to feel better about themselves.


According to Festinger, people rely on these comparisons with other people to accurately assess their own abilities, traits, and attitudes. In cases where your comparisons are not effective, you might find yourself getting into situations that are too difficult or complex for your current skill levels.

For example, when you compare yourself to your friends you might feel that you are pretty physically fit. So, you might sign up for a marathon believing that you have the ability to finish with no problem.

When race day arrives, you might find yourself surrounded by people who are much more athletic than you and realize that your initial assessment of your abilities was overly optimistic. When we can, we may put these comparisons to the test in real-world settings.

Upward Comparison

For example, if you want to assess your skill as a basketball player, you might start by playing a game with your friends or practice shooting free throws. Once you have a good understanding of what you are capable of, you might then begin comparing your performance to other people that you know.

You might immediately think of a friend who plays on his school's basketball team. This is an example of upward social comparison.

In comparison to him, your performance is not nearly as skilled. At first you may feel discouraged by the gap between your ability levels. But you might also realize that you can eventually achieve a similar skill level with a little practice. In this case, the upward social comparison may make you more motivated to improve upon your abilities.

Downward Comparison

You might then compare your abilities to a friend who couldn't make a basket to save his life. In comparison, your performance is much better.

This is an example of downward social comparison. In this case, observing your friend’s poor skills actually makes you feel even better about your own abilities.

Some comparisons might make you feel inadequate and less likely to pursue a goal, while others give you confidence and help boost your self-esteem.

A Word From Verywell

Social comparison not only plays a role in the judgments that people make about themselves but also in the way that people behave. As you compare yourself to others, consider how both upward and downward social comparison might influence your self-belief, confidence, motivation, and attitude, and watch out for negative feelings that might emerge as a result of this process.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  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.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.