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  • Writer's pictureJo Sutherst

Final Major Project: Research – Leon Festinger – Social Comparison Theory

In 1954, Leon Festinger (an American social psychologist) published a paper that proposed nine hypotheses to show that humans compare themselves to others in order to inform their circumstances, reduce uncertainties and define themselves.

I have considered a few of his hypotheses that bear relevance to my current research area.

His first hypothesis states that “there exist, in the human organism, a drive to evaluate his opinions and abilities”(Festinger, 1954).  Festinger proposed that humans have an innate need to evaluate their needs and abilities objectively.

Festinger’s second hypothesis says that “to the extent that objective and non-social means are not available, people evaluate their opinions and abilities by comparing respectively with opinions and abilities of others” (Festinger, 1954). So if there are no objective means available, Festinger proposed that people will evaluate themselves in comparison to other people and their surroundings.

Festinger goes on to state his belief that we tend to compare ourselves with people who have similar opinions and abilities. We place value on improving our abilities and getting better at things. He discussed how depending on our level of motivation to improve, we will compare ourselves with people who are either perceived as better than us or those who are considered to be worse than us.

His theory of upward comparison is where a highly motivated individual is engaged in these comparisons and often will try to improve to get better at something. It can be a double-edged sword though, in that this type of comparison can also make you feel worse if you feel that you don’t measure up to the standards of others. This is the normal type of comparison that we choose to make.

On the other hand, when we are unhappy or feel unmotivated, we will engage in downward comparisons to try and make ourselves feel better about ourselves.

We will engage in one of 2 types of downward comparisons – passive or active. A passive downward comparison occurs when we take into consideration our own situation, for example, if we compare ourselves to a worse off achiever. An active downward comparison happens when we compare ourselves to others by belittling another or causing them harm. By doing this we can generate a situation where the person we are going to compare ourselves to is in a worse position than us, allowing the chance to downwardly compare.

Festinger also argues that when we agree with other people in our social groups, it helps us to shape and validate our social identity and social reality. Communication with others creates agreements.

Festinger interprets social comparison as a means of self-enhancement and self-improvement. It is also a way to reinforce and maintain a positive self-image. Social comparison is ingrained in us and is part of our behaviour. We just need to make sure that it does not take over our lives and become an unhealthy obsession.


Festinger, L. (1954). A Theory of Social Comparison Processes. Human Relations, 7(2), pp.117-140.

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