Social Comparison: An Unavoidable Upward Or Downward Spiral

social comparisonSocial Comparison is a well-established topic in psychology literature, where its positive and negative aspects have been widely debated. But do we really need to compare ourselves to others, and will the practice help us in the long term?

Comparing ourselves to others is one of the many ways we cope with threats, build resilience, and establish our identities (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Buunk, Ybema, Gibbons, & Ipenburg, 2001).

The evaluation of the self against social environments is an unavoidable human tendency that provides information about an individual’s current situation (Wehmeyer, 2013).

What are better ways to accomplish those goals? We hope to explore some alternatives in this article.

Downward Social Comparison

“At least I didn’t embarrass myself in front of everyone like that girl.”

Individuals preferentially compare themselves with those who are worse off or less competent than themselves in an effort to boost their own well-being. This is called downward social comparison (Buunk et al., 2001; Carmona, Buunk, Peiro, Rodriguez, & Bravo, 2006).

Quite often, people attempt to alleviate uncomfortable feelings by saying, “It could be worse, right?” Psychology researchers have focused on this process of contrasting ourselves to others and the ways it can promote self-enhancement and self-protection (Wayment & Bauer, 2008).

This strategy makes us feel better about ourselves and can be comforting, but it has been shown to provide only momentary relief and is not a long-term solution (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Wehmeyer, 2013).

There are two styles of coping with uncomfortable feelings:

  • Palliative (indirect/avoidant);
  • Direct (problem-solving/practical).

Downward social comparison has been categorized as palliative, since it indirectly deals with distress by coasting through difficult situations with no direct acknowledgment or attempt to solve them.

Due to its short-term nature, a downward social comparison has been found to have a strong relationship with burnout and emotional exhaustion (Carmona et al., 2006; Buunk et al., 2001).


Contrast vs. Assimilation

Wayment and Bauer (2008) introduced the notion that past research has perhaps oversimplified the concept of downward social comparison.

The identification-contrast model shows that social comparison can be positive or negative, depending on whether individuals identify with or contrast themselves against other people (Buunk et al., 2001; Carmona et al., 2006). These two reactions to downward social comparison are contrast and assimilation.

Contrast refers to the heightened self-esteem one achieves after attaining information about a less-fortunate person and distancing oneself from that person, or even looking down on the person.

Assimilation, however, is when an individual can identify the similarities between the self and the other (Wayment & Bauer, 2008). Identifying with others can move a person away from self-preoccupation and the concept of “separate self” (Wayment & Bauer, 2008). It can also bring about compassion and positive interpersonal relationships.

Perceived similarity with less-fortunate others can heighten one’s sense of vulnerability. Individuals have reported that when experiencing this situation, they feel more interpersonal affection and greater affinity toward other people (Wayment & Bauer, 2008).

Strong connections with other human beings can be a powerful human motivator, resulting in many positive effects. If individuals were to focus more on their common bonds and a shared sense of vulnerability, it could lead to heightened compassion, helping behaviors, and a sense of camaraderie (Wayment & Bauer, 2008).


Upward Social Comparison

“He is so much happier and more successful than me”

Many of us have experienced the process of comparing ourselves to others whom we perceive to be better off or more successful than ourselves. This comparison style is very common, and it fosters feelings of helplessness, jealousy, and inferiority, which can jeopardize our identity (Carmona et al., 2006).

Persistence in this upward social comparison has been found to lead to higher levels of burnout and defeat (Carmona et al., 2006). Similar to downward social comparison, it falls under the umbrella of palliative coping styles since it serves as an indirect, inactive coping strategy (Buunk et al., 2001).

However, Jordan et al. (2011) made the noteworthy point that individuals only have the opportunity to observe and make judgments of other people when in social settings. Research has shown that people in social settings experience and display a higher amount of positive emotions and suppress negative emotions than those in solitary situations (Jordan et al., 2011).

There is a lot of research supporting the idea that people believe the misconception that others have more enjoyable and emotionally fulfilling lives than themselves (Jordan et al., 2011; Dunning, Heath, & Suls, 2004; Taylor & Brown, 1988.

Unless you are a mind-reader, how can you know what other people are feeling?


A Better Approach

The identification-contrast model, similar to upward assimilation, involves finding similarities between oneself and the so-called “better-off” others, and has been shown to be a powerful tool for personal development (Buunk et al., 2001; Carmona et al., 2006).

Identifying common elements between the self and the ‘better-offs’ enables individuals to view their situations differently as they come to the conclusion that they are capable of mastering their difficult situations by building upon the common strengths they have, and construct positive change.

This strategy is a direct, problem-solving coping style as opposed to being palliative (Carmona et al., 2006). Upward assimilation facilitates task-oriented strategies through hope, inspiration, and motivation.


But Should We Really Be Comparing Ourselves to Others?

There is another approach we could try in order to cope with difficult situations, and it illuminates the idea that we may not need social comparison at all.



A grateful outlook on one’s own life has been found to result in peace of mind, happiness, physical health, and satisfying personal relationships (Emmons & McCollough, 2003). It’s a coping mechanism that’s been present throughout history, and it’s practiced in many religions.

The 2003 study by Emmons and McCollough acknowledged the benefits of gratitude and investigated how one can pursue a grateful outlook. They divided participants into three groups and gave each group a different task. The tasks included completing a daily gratitude diary, comparing oneself to less-fortunate others (downward social comparison), and focusing on negative daily experiences.

Emmons and McCollough found that the gratitude diary group reported significantly higher levels of determination, energy, enthusiasm, joy, and pro-social behavior in comparison to the downward social comparison group.

Concluding that although the comparison of oneself against less fortunate others seems beneficial on the surface, it was not recommended as a direct route to gratitude and thankfulness, as it provides only a momentary, short-term appraisal with no deep personal source.

“Cherishing and savoring the positives in life is a more powerful, stable, and direct strategy in coping, as it focuses solely on the self, with the absence of comparison to others” (Emmons & McCollough, 2003).


A Take-Home Message

Psychology literature presents conflicting conclusions about upward and downward social comparison, meaning this topic is not black-and-white and that there’s no right or wrong solution.  

It’s crucial to mindfully observe the comparisons we formulate in our heads and remember that every one of us is unique in our personalities, strengths, weaknesses, and abilities. In this way, it’s impossible to accurately compare ourselves to others.

“A flower does not think of competing to the flower next to it. It just blooms.”
― Zen Shin

Have you found social comparison to be a help or a hindrance in your life? If it’s been a hindrance, how have you coped with it?

We would love to hear from you in our comments section below. 

  • Buunk, B.P., Ybema, J.F., Gibbons, F.X., & Ipenburg, M.L. (2001). The affective consequences of social comparison as related to professional burnout and social comparison orientation. European Journal of Social Psychology, 31, 337-351
  • Carmona, C., Buuna, B.P., Peiro, J.M., Rodriguez, I., & Bravo, M.J. (2006). Do social comparison and coping styles play a role in the development of burnout? Cross-sectional and longitudinal findings. Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, 79, 85-99
  • Dunning, D., Heath, C., & Suls, J. M. (2004). Flawed self-assessment: Implications for health, education, and the workplace. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5, 69-106.
  • Emmons, R., & McCullough, M. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84 (2) 377-389
  • Jordan, A.H., Monin, B., Dweck C.S., Lorett, B.J., John, O.P., & Gross, J.J. (2011) Misery has more company than people think: Underestimating the prevalence of others’ negative emotions. Personal and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37 (2), 120-135
  • Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological Bulletin, 103,193-210.
  • Wayment, H.A., & Bauer, J.J. (2008) Transcending self-interest: Psychological explorations of the quiet ego. Washington: American Psychological Association.
  • Wehmeyer, M.L. (2013). The oxford handbook of positive psychology and disability. New York: Oxford University Press.

About the Author

Justine Curwen, BPsySc., Psychologist, is an avid writer, and researcher in the realm of positive psychology. Her interest in researching and ‘normalising’ everyday positive psychology topics sparked after studying Positive Psychology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. She has worked as a social worker and support worker in mental health clinics and outreach in both Perth and Melbourne.


  1. Amel

    Loved the article and the approach of the upward/positive spiral.
    Thank you very much.


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