Social Comparison in the Classroom: A Review

From Section:
Theories & Approaches
Dec. 28, 2008

Source: Review of Educational Research. Vol. 78, Iss. 4; pg. 828-879. Dec 2008.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The paper reviews research conducted on social comparison processes in the classroom since Festinger proposed his theory of social comparison. Festinger's classical social comparison theory (1954) deals with individuals' need to have accurate appraisals of their abilities and opinions, and it stipulates that to form these appraisals, individuals prefer to compare themselves with people of similar abilities and opinions. When others' abilities and opinions are too far from one's own, whether above or below, it is not possible to accurately estimate one's ability and opinion. This assumption has been referred to as the similarity hypothesis. People in Western society feel the pressure to continually improve themselves; as such, Festinger (1954) hypothesized an unidirectional drive upward with regard to the evaluation of abilities. As a result, most people compare their abilities with those of others who perform slightly better than themselves.

At the end of the 1970s and the early 1980s, researchers such as Goethals and Darley (1977) and Wills (1981) proposed that social comparison is not limited to evaluating one's abilities and opinions (self-evaluation); it may also serve to protect or enhance one's self-esteem (so-called self -enhancement; Wills, 1981; Wood, 1989) and improve one's skills or abilities (so-called self-improvement; Wood, 1989).

As a result of this development, most scholars nowadays agree that individuals are not merely objective and unbiased self-evaluators that strive toward accurate self-perceptions; rather, individuals may harbor a variety of motives to compare themselves to others and that they are often motivated to hold biased views of themselves.

Because of the many developments within social comparison theory, studies that were conducted in the classroom setting using the theory as a theoretical framework have reported mixed findings and/or relied on a set of ideas that, in view of the current state of research, are out of date or incomplete. The purpose of the present paper is to review and summarize these findings and to address practical implications and avenues for future research.

The paper covers the theoretical framework of social comparison theory, and it is organized around the following themes: motives for social comparison, dimensions of social comparison, direction of social comparison, and consequences of social comparison. The overall picture is an emerging one in which pupils prefer to compare their performances upward-specifically, with pupils who perform better than themselves but who resemble themselves on related and unrelated attributes. Although the magnitude of the effects of social comparison in the classroom is not examined, the review suggests that such upward comparisons not only lead pupils to perform better but evoke negative affect and lower academic self-concept. Topics discussed include inconsistencies (especially with regard to the direction of comparison and the motives underlying social comparison in the classroom), practical implications, and directions for future research.

Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations 7, 117-140.

Goethals, G. R., & Darley, J. M. (1977). Social comparison theory: An attributional approach. In J. M. Suis & R. L. Miller (Eds.), Social comparison processes: Theoretical and empirical perspectives (pp. 259-278). Washington, DC: Hemisphere.

Wills, T. A. (1981). Downward comparison principles in social psychology. Psychological Bulletin, 90(2), 245-271.

Wood, J. V. (1989). Theory and research concerning social comparisons of personal attributes. Psychological Bulletin, 106(2), 231-248.

Updated: Jan. 17, 2017
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