Go compare

We reach double figures with number 10 in my series of short blog posts on learning theories. My intention is to work through the alphabet of psychologists and provide a brief overview of each theory, and how it can be applied in education. In my last post I examined Hermann Ebbinghaus work on memory and forgetting and its applications to education. In this post, we explore the work of Leon Festinger, namely social comparison theory. This is a simplified interpretation of the theory, so if you wish to learn more, please read the associated literature.

The theory

We all want to know how well we are doing. According to Festinger, associating with other people allows us to evaluate our own strengths and weaknesses. Being around other people also helps us to assess our own biases, skills and knowledge. This is particularly true in cases where there are no defined boundaries or objective standards for us to adhere to. In such uncertainty, says Festinger, it's good to be around other people.  We often gauge our own reactions to something on the basis of how it compares to the reactions of others around us.  This is social comparison, and influences the way we behave and think, the clothes we wear and even the way we speak. The theory explains how we acquire regional accents, why we become slaves to fashion, how we adopt new ideas and even the way a group can reach a consensus of opinion over seemingly insoluble problems.

Festinger demonstrated that anxious individuals preferred to be in the company of others if there was an unknown outcome or an unfamiliar experience to face. There is a sense of solidarity that we are 'all in this together', and that we are not alone in our doubts or anxieties. Clearly, there is safety in numbers.

One of the most important findings in social comparison theory says Festinger, is that we tend to compare ourselves upwards (against those who have a perceived higher status) and downwards (against those we perceive as having a lower status, who are considered more unfortunate). At the heart of social comparison theory is the concept of self evaluation - each person has different personal goals in life, and the level of their engagement in social comparison depends on this.

How it can be applied in education

Many studies have been published on the detrimental potential of social comparison on self image and also on cognitive and affective trust between individuals. Teachers should be aware that social comparison can have a negative influence on students' self evaluation. This will probably become most evident in mixed ability classes. If children are constantly working alongside others who consistently achieve higher, their self esteem may suffer and they may eventually give up. Conversely, children who are high flyers may be dragged down by lower achievers.

On a more positive note, children who compare themselves to others who are higher achievers may be inspired to work harder themselves. If the ability is present to succeed, then upward social comparison may work positively as an extrinsic motivator. High achievers could be asked to support their weaker peers and in so doing, might strengthen their own abilities and knowledge as they teach (downward social comparison) as described in this dissertation. Teachers should be aware of both the positive and negative implications of this theory and manage their classes accordingly. It's a fine balance between success and failure, and this is another good reason why teachers need to become familiar with the abilities and potential of each and every one of their students.


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

In the next post: Cognitive dissonance - Festinger

Previous posts in this series:

Anderson ACT-R Cognitive Architecture
Argyris Double Loop Learning
Bandura Social Learning Theory
Bruner Scaffolding Theory
Craik and Lockhart Levels of Processing
Csíkszentmihályi Flow Theory
Dewey Experiential Learning
Engeström Activity Theory
Ebbinghaus Learning and Forgetting Curves

Photo by Michael Johnson on Wikimedia Commons

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