We all compare ourselves to others in our social worlds, whether it is comparing our looks to those of celebrities we see in the media or our talents to those of our co-workers. 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 comparison we make influence the views we may hold of ourselves.
Social Comparison Theory Background
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.
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 Does the Social Comparison Process Work?
The social comparison process involves people coming to know themselves by evaluating their own attitudes, abilities, and beliefs 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: 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 level of ability. We might compare ourselves to someone better off and look for ways that we can also achieve similar results.
- Downward social comparison: when we compare themselves to others who are worse off than ourselves. Such downward comparisons are often centered on making ourselves feel better about our abilities. We might not be great at something, but at least we are better off than someone else.
Examples of Social Comparison Theory in Action
According to Festinger, people rely on these comparisons with other people to accurately assess their own skills, abilities, beliefs, 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, if you compare yourself to your friends and feel that you are pretty physically fit, 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.
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, but you might feel that you can eventually achieve similar skill with a little practice. In this case, upward social comparison may make you feel better about your skill and more motivated to improve upon it.
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.
As you can see, social comparison plays a role in the judgments that people make about themselves but also in the way that people behave. 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. As you compare yourself to others, consider how both upward and downward social comparison might influence your self-beliefs, confidence, motivation, and attitude and watch out for negative feelings that might emerge as a result of this process.
Compare and contrast is a common form of academic writing, either as an essay type on its own, or as part of a larger essay which includes one or more paragraphs which compare or contrast. This page gives information on what a compare and contrast essay is, how to structure this type of essay, how to use compare and contrast structure words, and how to make sure you use appropriate criteria for comparison/contrast. There is also an example compare and contrast essay on the topic of communication technology, as well as some exercises to help you practice this area.
What are compare & contrast essays?
To compare is to examine how things are similar, while to contrast is to see how they differ. A compare and contrast essay therefore looks at the similarities of two or more objects, and the differences. This essay type is common at university, where lecturers frequently test your understanding by asking you to compare and contrast two theories, two methods, two historical periods, two characters in a novel, etc. Sometimes the whole essay will compare and contrast, though sometimes the comparison or contrast may be only part of the essay. It is also possible, especially for short exam essays, that only the similarities or the differences, not both, will be discussed. See the examples below.
There are two main ways to structure a compare and contrast essay, namely using a block or a point-by-point structure. For the block structure, all of the information about one of the objects being compared/contrasted is given first, and all of the information about the other object is listed afterwards. This type of structure is similar to the block structure used for cause and effect and problem-solution essays. For the point-by-point structure, each similarity (or difference) for one object is followed immediately by the similarity (or difference) for the other. Both types of structure have their merits. The former is easier to write, while the latter is generally clearer as it ensures that the similarities/differences are more explicit.
The two types of structure, block and point-by-point, are shown in the diagram below.
Object 1 - Point 1
Object 1 - Point 2
Object 1 - Point 3
Object 2 - Point 1
Object 2 - Point 2
Object 2 - Point 3
Compare and Contrast Structure Words
Compare and contrast structure words are transition signals which show the similarities or differences. Below are some common examples.
Criteria for comparison/contrast
When making comparisons or contrasts, it is important to be clear what criteria you are using. Study the following example, which contrasts two people. Here the criteria are unclear.
Although this sentence has a contrast transition, the criteria for contrasting are not the same. The criteria used for Aaron are height (tall) and strength (strong). We would expect similar criteria to be used for Bruce (maybe he is short and weak), but instead we have new criteria, namely appearance (handsome) and intelligence (intelligent). This is a common mistake for students when writing this type of paragraph or essay. Compare the following, which has much clearer criteria (contrast structure words shown in bold).
Below is a compare and contrast essay. This essay uses the point-by-point structure. Click on the different areas (in the shaded boxes to the right) to highlight the different structural aspects in this essay, i.e. similarities, differences, and structure words. This will highlight not simply the paragraphs, but also the thesis statement and summary, as these repeat the comparisons and contrasts contained in the main body.
Title: There have been many advances in technology over the past fifty years. These have revolutionised the way we communicate with people who are far away. Compare and contrast methods of communication used today with those which were used in the past.
Before the advent of computers and modern technology, people communicating over long distances used traditional means such as letters and the telephone. Nowadays we have a vast array of communication tools which can complete this task, ranging from email to instant messaging and video calls. While the present and previous means of communication are similar in their general form, they differ in regard to their speed and the range of tools available.
One similarity between current and previous methods of communication relates to the form of communication. In the past, both written forms such as letters were frequently used, in addition to oral forms such as telephone calls. Similarly, people nowadays use both of these forms. Just as in the past, written forms of communication are prevalent, for example via email and text messaging. In addition, oral forms are still used, including the telephone, mobile phone, and voice messages via instant messaging services.
However, there are clearly many differences in the way we communicate over long distances, the most notable of which is speed. This is most evident in relation to written forms of communication. In the past, letters would take days to arrive at their destination. In contrast, an email arrives almost instantaneously and can be read seconds after it was sent. In the past, if it was necessary to send a short message, for example at work, a memo could be passed around the office, which would take some time to circulate. This is different from the current situation, in which a text message can be sent immediately.
Another significant difference is the range of communication methods. Fifty years ago, the tools available for communicating over long distances were primarily the telephone and the letter. By comparison, there are a vast array of communication methods available today. These include not only the telephone, letter, email and text messages already mentioned, but also video conferences via software such as Skype or mobile phone apps such as Wechat, and social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
In conclusion, methods of communication have greatly advanced over the past fifty years. While there are some similarities, such as the forms of communication, there are significant differences, chiefly in relation to the speed of communication and the range of communication tools available. There is no doubt that technology will continue to progress in future, and the advanced tools which we use today may one day also become outdated.
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Below is a checklist for compare and contrast essays. Use it to check your own writing, or get a peer (another student) to help you.
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