“Remember, the Ukrainians are doing this in the snow,” warns a concerned McDonald’s consumer to Team USA boxer Marlen Esparza, as the pseudocoach chows down on a burger and watches Esparza train in one of Mickey D’s new 2012 Olympics commercials. I’m not sure if they realize it, but when McDonald’s instructed the actress to coach Esparza by saying this, they tapped into the logic underlying a fundamental psychological concept: Social Comparison Theory.
Proposed by Leon Festinger back in 1954, social comparison theory claims that all people are fundamentally driven to evaluate their opinions and abilities, and when there aren’t any objective standards that people can use to evaluate themselves, they will compare their opinions and abilities to those of relevant others as an evaluative standard.
However, it’s not enough just to say that people will evaluate themselves via comparisons with relevant others. Rather, it’s important to note that you can do this in one of two ways —
- You can engage in downward social comparisons, in which you compare yourself with others who have it worse. These comparisons typically raise self-esteem and make people feel better about themselves and their abilities.
- You can engage in upward social comparisons, in which you compare yourself with others who are better than you. These are best for improving performance, as they provide a goal and an evaluative standard to work towards.
Returning to the McDonald’s commercial, would reminding Esparza that the Ukrainians are doing their training “in the snow” be an effective strategy to improve her performance?
It depends on how she interprets the remark. Esparza could use the Ukrainians as a downward social comparison, drawing attention to the fact that even though training might be difficult for her, at least it’s not as tough as it is for others (e.g. those who have to do their training in miserable conditions). This should make her feel better about herself and improve her self-esteem, though it should not necessarily improve her performance. On the other hand, Esparza could also interpret the remark as an upward social comparison, if she construes it as a means of drawing attention to the fact that other athletes can do everything that she does, but they are doing it in tougher conditions. If Esparza interprets the comment this way, then comparing herself with the Ukrainian boxers should actually lead her to improve her performance.
With that in mind, if you are a swimmer and you want to improve your abilities, should you make a habit of comparing yourself with Michael Phelps?
Not so fast. Remember, an important component of social comparison theory is that people must compare themselves with relevant others. When people engage in these practices in their everyday lives, they are much more likely to spontaneously compare themselves with classmates, colleagues, and friends than people who are either far worse or far better at the relevant domain, and that happens for a good reason. If you want to improve your swimming abilities, you’d want to compare yourself with your friend who has been swimming for about as long as you yet is slightly better than you, whereas if you want to raise your swimming self-esteem, you’d want to compare yourself with your friend who has been swimming for about as long and is slightly worse. Evaluating yourself against Michael Phelps or your friend who has never swum a lap would not be the optimal way to improve your swimming or feel better about your abilities in the pool, because they are just so far out of your performance range that it wouldn’t be a helpful or informative comparison.
For Esparza, on the other hand, the McDonald’s strategy might actually work because other Olympic athletes are a useful comparison group. Since they are a group of relevant others, using them as an evaluative benchmark could be a useful way to either improve or feel better about her boxing abilities, depending on how she views the comparison.
So, if you’d like to improve your athletic prowess, it probably wouldn’t serve you well to compare yourself with the Olympic competitors (unless you are one yourself). However, you could improve your abilities by comparing yourself with a friend who is slightly better than you, or alternatively, you could help yourself feel better by comparing yourself with a friend who is slightly worse.
Or, if you’d like, you could always think about all of the people in your profession who manage to do a job like yours in the snow when you need motivation to get working. It just might help.
Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7 DOI: 10.1177/001872675400700202
Mussweiler, T., & Rüter, K. (2003). What friends are for! The use of routine standards in social comparison. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1687
Aspinwall, L.G., & Taylor, S.E. (1993). Effects of social comparison direction, threat, and self-esteem on affect, self-evaluation, and expected success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037//0022-3522.214.171.1248
Helgeson, V.S., & Mickelson, K.D. (1995). Motives for social comparison. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21 DOI: 10.1177/01461672952111008