Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 117-140.
Festinger (1954) extends an earlier theory about group influences on one's own assessment of one's own opinions. The extension applies the same psychological process, comparison, to explain the appraisal and evaluation of one's own abilities as well as opinions.
The importance of the extension, according to Festinger (1954), is that the drive for self evaluation of own opinions and abilities has implications not only for the behavior of persons in groups, but also for the processes of group formation and membership change. To the extent that self evaluation can only be accomplished through comparison with other persons, the drive for self evaluation requires persons to belong to groups, to associate with other people. Thus, the drive toward accurate self assessment is an important reason that human beings are social creatures.
Opinions, Evaluations, and Abilities Interaction
Although opinions and abilities appear to be different things, there is a functional tie between them – they perform together, affecting behavior. By functional, Festinger appears to mean that accurate appraisal of opinions and abilities is necessary because it is instrumental; in the extreme, accurate appraisal of ability is necessary for individual survival.
Thus, an individual’s opinions and beliefs along, with their evaluation of their abilities, in each situation work together to impact their behavior.
Abilities are exhibited only through performance. For some abilities, performance alone allows for accurate appraisal; in other cases, performance provides ambiguous information about the underlying ability. Social comparison is more likely when performance provides ambiguous information.
The Social Comparison Process
Festinger presents the theory as a set of hypotheses, corollaries and derivations. It should be noted, however, the hypotheses Festinger offers could be viewed more as a set of theoretical assumptions. Furthermore, it is the set of derivations offered which could be viewed as hypotheses. This lack of clarity could very well be indicative of the historical time frame in which the study was conducted.
The first two hypotheses are (1) there exists, in the human organism, a drive to evaluate his opinions and his abilities; and (2) to the extent that objective, non-social means are not available, people evaluate their opinions and abilities by comparison, respectively with the opinions and abilities of others.
Two corollaries to these first assumptions are (1) the absence of both a physical and a social comparison, subjective evaluations of opinions and abilities are unstable; and (2) when objective, non-social basis for the evaluation of one's ability or opinion is readily available persons will not evaluate their opinions or abilities by comparison with others.
The third hypothesis is that the tendency to compare oneself with some other specific person decreases as the difference between his opinion or ability and one’s own increases. It's corollaries are (1)given a range of possible persons for comparison, someone close to one's own ability or opinion will be chosen for comparison; and (2)If the only comparison available is a very divergent one, the person will not be able to make a subjectively precise evaluation of his opinion or ability.
Based on these three hypotheses, Festinger offers three derivations: (1) the subjective evaluations of opinions or of abilities are stable when comparison is available with others who are judged to be close to one's opinions or abilities; (2) the availability of comparison with others whose opinions or abilities are somewhat different from one's own will produce tendencies to change one's evaluation of the opinion or ability in question; (3) a person will be less attracted to situations where others are very divergent from him than to situations where others are close to him for both abilities and opinions; and (4)the existence of a discrepancy in a group with respect to opinions or abilities will lead to action on the part of members of that group to reduce the discrepancy.
Differences Between Ability and Opinion Comparisons
Festinger next adds two more hypotheses: (1) There is a unidirectional drive upward in the case of abilities which is largely absent in opinions; and (2) there are non-social restraints which make it difficult or even impossible to change one's ability. These non-social restraints are largely absent for opinions.
From these, and those above, he offers three derivations: (1) When a discrepancy exists with respect to opinions or abilities there will be tendencies to change one's own position so as to move closer to others in the group; (2) when a discrepancy exists with respect to opinions or abilities there will be tendencies to change others in. the group to bring them closer to oneself; (3)when a discrepancy exists with respect to opinions or abilities there will be tendencies to cease comparing oneself with those in the group who are very different from oneself.
Negative Consequences of Comparisons
Although comparisons are functional, Festinger develops two hypotheses concerning negative consequences of social comparison. (1) The cessation of comparison with others is accompanied by hostility or derogation to the extent that continued comparison with those persons implies unpleasant consequences; and (2)Cessation of comparison with others will be accompanied by hostility or derogation in the case of opinions. In the case of abilities this will not generally be true.
Continuing the patterns in previous sections, Festinger offers derivations. (1) Any factors which increase the strength of the drive to evaluate some particular ability or opinion will increase the "pressure toward uniformity" concerning that ability or opinion; and (2) Any factors which increase the importance of some particular group as a comparison group for some particular opinion or ability will increase the pressure toward uniformity concerning that ability or opinion within that group.
A corollaries to the previous derivations are (1) that an increase in the importance of an ability or an opinion, or an increase in its relevance to immediate behavior, will increase the pressure toward reducing discrepancies concerning that opinion or ability; and (2) the stronger the attraction to the group the stronger will be the pressure toward uniformity concerning abilities and opinions within that group (3) the greater the relevance of the opinion or ability to the group, the stronger will be the pressure toward uniformity concerning that opinion or ability.
Two final hypothese states (1) if persons who are very divergent from one's own opinion or ability are perceived as different from oneself on attributes consistent with the divergence, the tendency to narrow the range of comparability becomes stronger; and (2) when there is a range of opinion or ability in a group, the relative strength of the three pressures toward uniformity will be different for those who are close to the mode of the group than for those who are distant from the mode. Specifically, those close to the mode of the group will have stronger tendencies to change the positions of others, relatively weaker tendencies to narrow the range of comparison and much weaker tendencies to change their own position compared to those who are distant from the mode of the group.
Implications for Group Formation and Societal Structure
According to Festinger (1954), “the segmentation into groups which are relatively alike with respect to abilities also gives rise to status in society” (p. 136). While it is rare for members of one status group (e.g., high or low) to belong to the opposite status group, comparisons are made between the groups, even if they are mostly imaginative. This same comparability is also seen, for example, when comparisons are made between majority and minority group members. However, when minority group members fail to attain absolute incomparability with other groups, self-evaluations become less secure. One might expect that this leads to pressures of uniformity and stronger support within minority groups, which potentially causes the group to be less tolerable to dissimilar opinions and abilities. Experimentally, this has been shown to be accurate. More specifically, smaller groups of a larger faction were shown to exert more pressure toward uniformity than the larger group, which led to boisterous competition in regards to abilities. According to Festinger, because this difference of opinions ultimately leads to rejection from the group, could explain, potentially, why smaller and smaller groupings are found amongst minorities who are under continuous pressure from majority segments of the population.
Consequences of Preventing Incomparability
There are two situations in which comparability is forced, even though there is major deviation from the group. The first situation is when the attraction of the group is so strong that the individual will want to remain even if there is difference of opinion or ability. If there is no other comparison group for this opinion or ability, or the the opinion or ability is relevant to the group, then comparability is forced. The second situation where compatibility is forced upon a person is when an individual is prevented from leaving the group. When attraction to the group is null, the group cannot effectively influence the individual, but can physically and/or psychologically influenced (e.g., threat or punishment for noncompliance). If the individual averts in the direction of the higher end of the ability scale, he/she can again publicly conform without privately accepting the appraisal of the group. If the individual drifts toward the opposite end of the ability scale, this may be impossible. Provided there are other comparison groups for self evaluation on this ability, the individual may remain personally and privately uninfluenced by this group situation.
Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 117-140.