Low Self-Esteem: The role of social comparison


 (updated 1 February 2022)

In this series on low self-esteem we will be looking at how we have different domains of self-esteem in our post on body image and eating disorders, and we've also blogged about how our self-esteem can be stable or fluctuate in response to events.

Today we’re looking at how the process of social comparison impacts on self-esteem. We briefly talked about social comparison some time ago in our post on at the ways in which social media hurts our self-esteem, but let’s take a closer look at the relationship between social comparison and self-esteem.


To recap, social comparison refers to a tendency to evaluate ourselves against others, and we may compare ourselves to others across many domains including work performance, our marks in our studies, how much money we earn, the types of possessions that we have, how popular we are, how good at sport we are, and also how we look.

When we make comparisons, there are different types of comparisons that we may make[1], however we will focus on two that have been studied particularly in the area of self-esteem – upward and downward comparisons.[2]

Upward comparisons involve comparing ourselves to someone whom we view to be better than us in that particular domain. Thus, that may mean comparing ourselves to the employee of the month, the best student in our class, or the most popular person in our social circle.

In contrast, downward comparisons involve comparing ourselves to those whom we feel perform worse than us in that domain. Thus, we may compare ourselves to someone who performs worse than us or is less popular than us.

Research tells us that the lower our self-esteem, the more we tend to compare upwards [3], however the downfall is that this typically leads to feeling worse about ourselves – in other words, it is an unhelpful cycle. Let’s take a closer look at how comparing upwards may play out in our everyday thoughts:

AT WORK  Why did she get the project over me? It’s because she’s so much better at her job than I am even though we’ve been working here for a similar number of years. I must be incompetent.

IN SPORT  Look at his stats, they’re amazing and to think that he has only been training for six months. I’ve been at it for 18 months and I’m far worse than him. Why do I even bother if I can’t produce similar times?

WITH OUR FAMILIES  Look at the Joneses, they have kids that sit politely and eat their meals quietly at a restaurant. Why do we have to have the rowdy kids?

WITHIN OURSELVES  Just look at that photo of her, she looks so amazing. Ugh, I’m so frumpy in comparison. Why do I bother making an effort when I’ll never look like that?

That said, not everyone who makes upward social comparisons ends up feeling worse, and some people use upward social comparisons to motivate themselves to do better. Take, for instance, someone who aspires to run faster and compares himself to the best runner that he knows. This may motivate him to look at the best runner’s technique and preparation, using this as an opportunity to improve on his own technique and preparation.

So, what determines whether we feel better or worse when we make upward comparisons? The perception of how much control we have over changing our circumstances appears to an important factor[4]. If we think that we have the means, ability, and capacity to change then we’re more likely to see the end goal within our reach. If we don’t think that you have the means, ability, or capacity to change then we’re more likely to feel down.


If comparing ourselves to others is something that we naturally do, how do we cushion the negative impact that social comparison has on our self-esteem?

One strategy is to look at how we think about the situation, and rather than accept the status quo, look at what we can learn from it or develop a more realistic picture of the situation. Taking the same scenarios of our thoughts above, we can look at these situations differently:

AT WORK  I may be bummed that she got the project rather than me, but I also know that she has specialised knowledge in that particular area and therefore was the more suitable choice for that project. I specialise in other areas that have led me to working on other projects, however if I want to I can think about reading up in her area of specialisation.

IN SPORT  His stats look really good, maybe I can ask him what his training regime looks like and have a look at ways to tweak mine to improve my times.

WITH OUR FAMILIES  Their kids have excellent manners, but I know that manners have been consistently drilled into them from very early on. It may take some time and effort on our part, but if we’re prepared to start consistently reinforcing manners at the dinner table in our household, we can head in that direction.  

WITHIN OURSELVES  Yes she does look amazing in that photo, but I also know that photos in magazines are often the product of careful styling, hair and make-up, and photoshopping. So, while I feel frumpy in comparison I will take what I see with a grain of salt, and focus on getting fitter and healthier to have a better version of my body.


Finally, it’s worth considering why we base our self-esteem on how we compare to others. Another way of thinking about it is to look at self-esteem on a continuum, with one end of the scale being Contingent Self-Esteem wherein our self-esteem is determined by how we compare to others, and the other end of the scale is Non-contingent Self-Esteem or “true self-esteem” where we don’t need validation from external sources, but rather focus on behaving consistently with our ‘core’ self[5].

By focusing less on gauging how we’re going by comparing ourselves to others, and focusing more instead on what guides, us we then set goals because we want to achieve them from a mastery perspective rather than achieving them because it makes us equal to or better than others. That is, the satisfaction we get from achieving these goals isn’t so much from gaining proof that we’re good enough, but rather a sense of satisfaction that we’ve done the job well.[6]

Now, wouldn’t that be a refreshing prospect?



Want more? You can Contact us to make an individual appointment to get started on making changes. You can connect with us face-to-face in Perth, Australia, or via telehealth.


[1]Wert, S.R., & Salovey, P. (2004). A social comparison account of gossip. Review of General Psychology, 8, 122-137.

[2] Patrick, H., Neighbors, C., & Knee, C.R. (2004). Appearance-related social comparisons: The role of contingent self-esteem and self-perceptions of attractiveness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 501-514.

[3] Richins, M.L. (1991). Social comparison and the idealized images of advertising. Journal of Consumer Research, 18, 71-83.

[4] Wheeler, L., & Miyake, K. (1992). Social comparison in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62, 760-773.

[5] Patrick, H., Neighbors, C., & Knee, C.R. (2004). Appearance-related social comparisons: The role of contingent self-esteem and self-perceptions of attractiveness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 501-514.

[6] Kernis, M.H., Paradise, A.W., & Whitaker, D.J. (2000). Master of one’s psychological domain? Not likely if one’s self-esteem is unstable. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26, 1297-1305.