Research summary highlights the health impact of comparing oneself to others

If you’ve ever looked at another person and thought, “well, at least I’m doing better than he is,” or “wow, I wish I could be doing as well as she is,” you’re not alone. This phenomenon, called social comparison, is common in daily life, and it is the topic of a research summary that suggests that making such comparisons could influence people's physical and emotional health.
Proposed in the 1950s, the original theory of social comparison states that individuals are driven to evaluate themselves against others under conditions of uncertainty.

“People compare themselves to others with respect to all kinds of life domains — wealth, appearance, achievement,” said Josh Smyth, professor of biobehavioral health and of medicine, Penn State. “When we’re unsure of how we’re doing, we can reduce uncertainty by getting information from others. This can be particularly important when applied to physical health status, and it may help us understand how our perceptions of the social environment influence our health.”

Smyth and his co-authors conducted a qualitative synthesis of over 30 studies on the relationship between social comparisons and health-related experiences among individuals with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, cancer and arthritis. These individuals may be especially likely to use social comparisons to reduce uncertainty about their health, said Smyth.

Indeed, the research he and his colleagues examined shows that people with chronic illnesses frequently compare themselves to others with the same illness. Various studies show that people who compare “downward,” to others who are worse off, are less depressed than people who compare “upward,” to people who are better off. Downward comparisons often are associated with immediate positive feelings such as relief and gratitude.

But nearly as often, studies show the exact opposite — that people who compare upward do better on physical health measures and report feeling hopeful about their ability to improve. Still other studies demonstrate the negative effects of both types of comparisons: downward comparisons can lead to sadness or worry and upward comparisons can lead to dejection.
So what makes the difference? According to Danielle Arigo, graduate student, Syracuse University, this is exactly what we need to know before we can help people benefit from making comparisons.

“Right now, we know that it can go either way," she said. "Someone’s doing better than you are? That can be either inspirational or depressing. Someone’s doing worse? That can give you some relief, or it can get you thinking about your own situation getting worse in the future. The problem is that although we don’t quite understand how social comparisons work, they are frequently used in health interventions for individuals with chronic illness."

For example, health-education materials often include images or descriptions of patients with a particular medical condition to get patients thinking about a hypothetical future. Public service announcements often use similar tactics, with limited effect.

Arigo says that studying the process of social comparison can improve the way we use positive and negative examples of behavior.

“We found that previous research points to differences in what people think about while they’re reading; specifically, how similar they are to the person they’re reading about," she said. "Focusing on similarities between you and people doing well will likely lead to feeling good, whereas focusing on differences between you and people doing poorly will likely lead to feeling good,” she said. “But if you focus on differences between you and someone doing well, or similarities between you and someone doing poorly, you’ll likely feel worse. What people focus on appears to be associated with personality traits, mood and a variety of other factors that are not yet well understood."

According to Smyth, this research summary identifies specific gaps in the current knowledge about social comparisons, including the factors that determine whether a person focuses on similarities or differences between themselves and others. "In the future, this information may help to improve health communication efforts," he said.

These results appear in the current issue of Health Psychology Review. Jerry Suls, professor of social psychology, University of Iowa, also is an author on the paper.

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Joshua Smyth can be reached at jms1187@psu.edu or at 814-863-8402. For additional information, please contact the College of Health and Human Development Office of College Relations at 814-865-3831 or healthhd@psu.edu.