State University of New York at Albany
Evaluating the Self in the Context of Another:
The Three-Selves Model of Social Comparison Assimilation and Contrast
From the straightforward premise that evaluation of the self is relative, social comparison theory makes predictions on such diverse topics as self-regulation, subjective well-being, interpersonal attraction and rejection, group formation, group conflict, prejudice, and perceptions of injustice. Unfortunately, the history of this theory is anything but straightforward. To begin, social comparison is not one theory but two. One theory is about motivation and the factors influencing the type of social comparison information people seek from their social environment. The primary dependent variable in this research has been social comparison choice, To a lesser degree, research has also examined efforts to change the self or others so that desirable comparisons can be made. The second social comparison theory is about self-evaluation and the factors influencing the effects social comparisons have on judgments of the self. The primary dependent variables in this research have been mood and state changes in self-esteem.
Of the two, the first theory has received the most empirical attention. A possible account for this is that motivation was Festinger's (1954a) interest. His views on motives were captured succinctly in the first two hypotheses of his original theory. In Hypothesis I, he argued, “There exists, in the human organism, a drive to evaluate his opinions and his abilities” (p. 117). This statement lead to Hypothesis II, “To the extent that objective, nonsocial means are not available, people evaluate their opinions and abilities by comparison respectively with the opinions and abilities of others” (p. 118). The research that followed these pronouncements has established that Festinger's perspective was lacking in two regards. First, it underestimated the variety of motives contributing to interest social comparison information. The motive to obtain accurate self-evaluation is one. Depending on the context, however, social comparison information may be sought to help in efforts toward self-enhancement, self-verification, and self-improvement, or to help with any number of other personal or interpersonal motivations (see Major, 1994; Taylor & Lobel, 1989; Wood & Taylor, 1991). The second way in which Festinger's original perspective has proved lacking is that it underestimated the desire for social comparison information. People seek such information even when “objective, non-social means” are readily available. Thus, to the extent that one is motivated to self-evaluate (or to self-verify, or to improve, etc.), social comparison is often the first source of information sought (Wood, 1989).
Whereas a great deal of research has advanced a theory of comparison motives, relatively little has advanced a theory of comparative evaluation. However, a host of seemingly contradictory findings suggest that more attention should be paid to this second theory (see Buunk & Ybema, 1997; Collins, 1996; Tesser, 1988). For instance, research has demonstrated that both upward comparison with superior others and downward comparison with inferior others can both raise and lower self-evaluation. As a result, it is often difficult determining what motive is driving an interest in social comparison information in any given situation. To illustrate, someone who seeks upward social comparison may be doing so because of a motive to self-enhance, if this is a circumstance that will raise self-evaluations. Alternatively, this person may be doing this because of a motive to improve, if this is a circumstance that will lower self-evaluation and increase commitment to a goal or if this is a circumstance that will raise self-evaluations and increase feelings of self-efficacy. Finally, this person may be doing this because of a motive to self-verify, if this is a circumstance that will validate an assumed similarity between the self and an exceptional other. Thus, to decode the motives driving different comparison choices across different contexts, it would be informative to clarify the effects that different comparison choices are likely to have on self-evaluation.