Social Comparisons: Coping with Illness

Social Comparison Theory was first developed by Festinger in 1954.  It is described as:

“There exists in the human organism, a drive to evaluate his opinions and abilities” (p. 117).

Festinger argued that people tend to make comparisons with similar others, however, two types of social comparison have emerged:

  • Upward Comparisons: the tendency to compare ourselves to people who we feel are superior to us on a particular dimension (e.g. comparing ourselves to models).

  • Downward Comparisons: the tendency to compare ourselves to people we view as being inferior to us on a particular dimension (e.g. comparing ourselves to those with a chronic illness).

Social comparisons have been widely reported by people who are ill (Gibbons and Gerrard, 1991).

This tendency to carry out social comparisons when we are ill can, in part, be explained by Crisis Theory (Moos and Schaefer, 1984):

People in crisis are particularly susceptible to external influences. 

When ill or living with a chronic condition, social comparisons may be used for a number of reasons, such as:

  • To evaluate the nature and impact of the disease.

  • To learn about treatments.

  • To evaluate how well we are coping compared to others.

There is some evidence that downward social comparisons are more likely to be used by people who are ill or living with a chronic condition (Collins, 1996).

In a healthcare environment, comparing ourselves to a patient who is not doing as well is likely to provide a contrast that signifies we are doing better. For example, people with cancer have been found to rate themselves as superior to other people with cancer on:

  • Coping Skills (Jenkins and Pergament, 1988)

  • Physical Well-Being (VanderZee et al., 1996).

This in turn can help them adjust better to their situation (Jenkins and Pergament, 1988).

An explanation for this tendency towards downward social comparisons might be partially explained by Taylor’s (1983) argument that after a stressful or traumatic event, intense emotions need to be reduced before active problem-solving can take place.

Downward comparisons resulting in feelings of superiority might be the most effective way of promptly reducing intense negative emotions.

In contrast, upward comparisons have been found to be a useful information-seeking aid, and thus might be adopted later, during the problem-solving phase of coping (Bennenbroek et al., 2002).

So, while social comparisons are generally seen in a negative way, they can be a useful coping resource in traumatic situations!


Bennenbroek FTC, Buunk BP, Van der Zee KI, & Grol, B (2002) Social comparison and patient information: What do cancer patients want? Patient Education and Counseling, 47, p. 5-12.

Collins RL (1996) For better or worse: the impact of upward social comparison on self-evaluations. Psychological Bulletin, 119, p. 51-69.

Festinger L (1954) A Theory of Social Comparison Processes. Human Relations 7(2), p. 117-140.

Gibbons FX, Gerrard M (1991) Social Comparison. Contemporary theory and research. Hillsdale, NJ, Erlbaum.

Jenkins RA, Pergament KI (1988) Cognitive appraisals in cancer patients. Social Science and Medicine 26, p. 625-633.

Moos RH, Schaefer JA (1984) Coping with Physical Illness: New Perspectives. R. H. Moos. New York, Plenum Press. 2, p. 3-25.

Taylor SE (1983) Adjustment to threatening events: A theory of cognitive adaptation. American Psychologist 38, p. 1161-1173.

Vanderzee BPB, et al (1996) Social Comparison and the Subjective Well-Being of Cancer Patients. Basic and Applied Social Psychology 18.

Categories: Health, Psychology

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3 replies

  1. I imagine that learning about someone with the same, or worse, medical condition who is coping or who’s recovered might be reassuring.

  2. I agree Patsy. I think this is why support groups can be so successful. If people can identify, they can also pick tips for coping.

  3. Reblogged this on Paul Parmar and commented:
    #Health Psychology Consultancy.

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