Social comparisons are carried out when a person relates abilities, opinions, or other characteristics of one person or group to abilities, opinions, or other characteristics of another person or group. In academic settings, social comparisons occur (intentionally or unintentionally), for example, when a student compares his own exam grade with the grade of a class mate or when a teacher thinks of the best or worst students in mathematics in his class. Referring to educational theory and research, social comparisons are important and valid predictors of students' self-evaluations and achievement behavior.
The study of social comparison was initiated by the social psychologist Leon Festinger (1954). In his model, Fes-tinger outlines the central processes underlying the formation of the beliefs about one's own abilities and opinions held by a person. Festinger hypothesizes that a motive for self-evaluation triggers social comparisons, in particular when objective means are not available. Following Fes-tinger, people tend to use similar other persons as comparison targets to maximize the information resulting from comparisons. Goethals and Darley (1977) defined similarity in terms of related attributes. Therefore, comparisons are more useful when the comparison target shares relevant attributes (for example, gender or age) with the person carrying out the comparison. Comparing one's math performance with the math performance of a same age student is much more informative than comparing the math performance with a younger or older student.
Studies on spontaneous comparisons using diary methods revealed insight in the occurrence of social comparisons in daily life. According to Wheeler and Miyake (1992) situations such as school exams actually encourage social comparisons.
When students are free to choose a particular classmate as a comparison target, the majority prefers slightly higher achieving classmates. This finding corresponds to the “unidirectional drive upward” hypothesis. Such comparisons with slightly better classmates are called upward comparisons. They often seem to be caused by the aspiration to get hints from analyzing the work of better-off students. Therefore, a self-improvement motive may trigger upward comparisons.
If a student chooses to compare with a lower achieving classmate downward comparisons are carried out. Downward comparisons often seem to be caused by the motive to feel good or better; self-enhancement or self-protection motives may trigger downward comparisons.
The frequency of upward and downward comparisons is affected by performance level and pre-comparison affect. Good performance and positive mood predict downward social comparisons whereas poor performance and negative mood predict upward social comparisons (Blanton, Buunk, Gibbons, and Kuyper, 1999).
If a student gets better grades than others, and feels to be more competent in a particular subject in relation to other students, relatively positive self-evaluations may be the consequence. Thus, good grades and downward comparisons lead to a relatively high academic self-concept in that subject. If a student gets worse grades than others, and feels to be less competent in a particular subject in relation to other students, relatively negative self-evaluations may be the consequence. Therefore, bad grades and upward comparisons lead to a relatively low academic self-concept in that subject.
However, each comparison direction may reveal opposite consequences as well. On the one hand, upward comparisons may boost self-concepts when individuals believe that they can improve their own performance and become as good as the comparison target. On the other hand, downward comparisons may reduce self-concepts when people believe that they may become as worse as their comparison target.
Researchers have to distinguish social comparison effects on different kinds of self-beliefs. At first, social comparisons are relevant for the self-concept formation as described above. In addition, they are relevant for more affective evaluations such as self-esteem. For example, in the Wheeler and Miyake study, the direction of comparison had an impact on the affective reaction—upward social comparisons reduced, and downward social comparisons enhanced subjective well-being.
Social comparisons are less important for self-efficacy measures which include different questions concerning specific tasks (“How many of these particular tasks will you solve within 30 minutes?”) Answering these questions does not necessarily require social comparison processes but prior experience with similar tasks.
Social comparisons not only influence students' self-concepts but also improve their performance. Blanton et al. (1999) longitudinally investigated the effects of comparison processes on academic performance. They asked students to nominate a particular classmate with whom they typically compared their grades. One of the central results was that students, on average, preferred upward comparisons which improved their grades in longitudinal analyses controlling for prior grades.
The big-fish-little-pond effect (BFLPE) is based on students' comparisons of their own ability or performance with the abilities of their classmates. This social comparison process leads to a lower self-concept when the class level is high and to a higher self-concept when the class level is low. Therefore, two students with equal performance in a domain may develop different self-concepts when they belong to different classes with different performance levels.
Whereas social comparison research usually analyses the consequences of comparisons with particular other persons, research on the BFLPE assumes that students compare their own ability with the class or school level. Marsh, Trautwein, Lüdtke, and Köller (2007) assume that such a generalized other serves as an (unintentionally chosen) comparison target leading to a self-concept decrease following upward comparisons (small fish in a big pond) or to a self-concept increase following downward comparisons (big fish in a little pond).
Moreover, Marsh et al. (2007) compared results based on comparisons with a generalized other (class-average achievement) and comparisons with a specific classmate. Both sources of social comparison information contributed negatively to self-beliefs with regard to math ability. Selecting higher achieving classmates as comparison targets as well as attending high performing classes reduced self-beliefs. Comparing downward with worse performing classmates as well as attending a low performing class increased self-beliefs.
Clearly, a lot more comparisons take place in schools; students (as well as teachers) can compare their performance, motivation, effort, and other characteristics to each standard they want. Following Skaalvik and Skaalvik (2002), students use multiple external and internal frames of reference while making self-judgments. They may compare their achievement with goals and aspirations, with effort in those subjects, or with other external standards such as school grades and class rankings.
According to the Internal/External-Frame-of-Reference model (I/E model, Marsh, 1986), students compare their levels of academic ability using two different, but connected, frames of reference: internal (dimensional) and external (social) comparison processes. Within the external frame of reference, students conduct social comparisons: that is, they compare their accomplishments with those of their classmates. If their verbal achievement is higher than their classmates', their verbal self-concept will also be higher. Because achievements in school subjects typically are positively correlated, it would seem reasonable to assume that these social comparison processes will lead to domain-specific self-concepts that are also positively correlated.
Processes of internal or dimensional (Möller & Köller, 2001a) comparison have been drawn on to explain the domain-specificity of academic self-concepts and the often very low correlations observed between verbal and math self-concept. According to this internal frame of reference, students evaluate their achievements in any given subject in relation to their own achievements in other subjects. Therefore, talented students may develop an average self-concept in their worst subject, even though their performance in this subject is well above the average performance of their peers. Hence, social and dimensional comparisons affect the development of domain-specific self-concepts. Based on external comparisons with one's classmates' achievements in mathematics, low math ability tends to lead to low math self-concept. Based on internal comparisons between one's own achievement in mathematics and one's achievement in verbal domains, low math ability seems to lead to an increase in verbal self-concept (see the meta-analyses by Möller, Pohlmann, Köller & Marsh, 2007).
Social comparisons matter in different ways. Teachers can affect the types of social comparisons carried out by themselves and their students. Teachers who overly compare the low performances of their poorer students to the performances of their better students may further reduce the poorer students' self-concepts and self-esteem. In particular, poorer students who did not expect to be able to improve their performance significantly may suffer in a highly competitive class. It may be more useful for teachers to compare students' performance intra-individually and over time. Such temporal comparisons should outline the progress even poorly performing students reveal. Teachers' encouraging comments particularly following academic failure may reduce the amount and importance of unfavorable social comparisons, which could protect poorly achieving students' self-beliefs and motivation to a certain degree.
Moreover, teachers may use the positive effects of upward comparisons with slightly better-off classmates. If a student is convinced that he is able to reach the comparison target's performance level, it is useful to analyze the better performance of a classmate in order to improve his own performance. In particular, within cooperative learning settings the positive effects of social learning may be fostered when students are taught to cooperate and not to compete.
Blanton, H., Buunk, B. P., Gibbons, F. X., & Kuyper, H. (1999). When better-than-others compare upward: Choice of comparison and comparative evaluation as independent predictors of academic performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 420–430.
Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7, 117–140.
Goethals, G. R. & Darley, J. (1977). Social comparison theory: An attributional approach. In J. Suls and R. L. Miller (Eds.), Social comparison processes: Theoretical and empirical perspectives (pp. 259–278). Washington, DC: Hemisphere Publishing.
Marsh, H. W. (1986). Verbal and math self-concepts: An internal/external frame of reference model. American Educational Research Journal, 23, 129–149.
Marsh, H. W., Trautwein, U., Lüdtke, O., & Köller, O. (2007). Social comparison and big-fish-little-pond effects on self-concept and other self-belief constructs: Role of generalized and specific others. Under review.
Möller, J., & Köller, O. (2001). Dimensional comparisons: An experimental approach to the internal/external frame of reference model. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93, 826–835.
Skaalvik, E. M., & Skaalvik, S. (2002). Internal and external frames of reference for academic self-concept. Educational Psychologist, 37, 233–244.
Wheeler, L., & Miyake, K. (1992). Social comparison in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62, 760–773.
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