Facebook and Social Comparison Theory
My high-school aged son and his friends use a Facebook application that is both interesting and horrifying. With this application, the user compares him- or herself to all of their Facebook friends. Once you start this application, it shows random pairs of individuals from your Facebook friend list (which, by the way, includes me), and it asks you to judge them on a remarkably wide range of criteria.
For example, it might show pictures of two friends, and then ask who has the best profile picture or smells the nicest or is the coolest or is the best potential parent or is the most fun to go shopping with. Just think-- if you use this program, you might be able to go to school or work the next day uplifted by the knowledge that you smell nicer than any of your Facebook friends.
This program horrifies me because I’m aware of how incredibly powerful peer-influence is during adolescence and even young adulthood (read: college students). If all your friends are doing something, then you’ll probably do it too--no matter how silly or thoughtless it is. This is why young people will dress funny, have bizarre hairstyles, and listen to terrible music—but that may have just been me growing up in the 1970s disco-era. Thankfully, the program doesn’t have negative categories, in which you vote for who smells the worst. Still, I shutter to think how much power these explicit peer-comparisons have over young peoples’ understandings and feelings about themselves.
This program is interesting because it is a great example of social comparison theory. This theory, developed by well-known social psychologist Leon Festinger (back in 1954, even before Facebook!), assumes that people understand themselves, in part, by comparing themselves to others. In fact, we make these comparisons constantly and in just about every area of our lives—our abilities, opinions, possessions, relationships. If we walk into a room with other people in it, even if we don’t know them well, we have probably already figured out whether we are taller or shorter, richer or poorer, and younger or older than them.
We’re especially prone to compare ourselves to people we view as similar to us. So I usually compare myself to men about my age, especially those in academia. I’m much less inclined to compare myself to someone considerably different, e.g., one of my first-grade son’s friends. The fact that I can run faster than a seven-year old really doesn’t matter much, but I’m aware of how much I publish or earn compared to my colleagues in sociology.
The fact that we compare ourselves to others is pretty straightforward. Social comparison theory gets really interesting when we consider why we do it. Sometimes we just want to know how we’re doing—to assess ourselves—and in that case we compare ourselves to people who are most similar to us. Say you were a golfer, you might want to get a sense for how well you were doing, so you would compare your golf scores with those of people like you—maybe the friends that you go golfing with. (I actually gave up golfing after a particularly difficult experience getting the ball under the windmill).
Other times, however, we want to improve how we’re doing in a given area. In this situation, we consciously choose someone much better than us to compare ourselves with. The idea is that if they are better, any differences between us and them might signal areas that we could improve on. So, a golfer might compare himself with Tiger Woods, correctly assuming that Tiger has a much better swing and approach to the game than he does.
Sometimes, however, we want to feel better about ourselves, and so we might compare ourselves to people who are doing less well than us in a particular area. So, if a golfer is down in the dumps, maybe watching a beginner play might make her feel better about her own golf skills.
The larger point here is that how we define and understand ourselves is an inherently social process, for it stems in part from who we compare ourselves to. Not only that, but we strategically use these comparisons to alter who we are and how we see ourselves. So, the Facebook social comparison application, like so much else in life, becomes a tool for making sense of who we are in the world.
Still, this is little comfort for me not having been voted the nicest smelling person.