Examining Forced Social Comparisons: Effects of Ethnicity and Gender

ABSTRACT - Although research has examined the propensity and implications of engaging in voluntary social comparisons, little research has examined what happens when comparison information is provided unsolicited, what we call Aforced comparisons.@ This paper represents an exploratory study of forced comparisons. We compare Asian and non-Asian samples on their reports of receiving forced comparisons while growing up, of the nature of those comparisons (i.e. upward vs. downward), of the effect of those comparisons, and of their current propensity to engage in voluntary upward and downward social comparison as adults. We find that non-Asians report having received more downward (favorable) comparisons about their personality and behavior than Asians report. More Asians than non-Asians rate downward comparisons as having an unfavorable effect. Asians report engaging in more voluntary upward (unfavorable) comparisons than do non-Asians. In seeking to explain these differences, we speculate that perhaps collectivist cultures use upward comparisons to establish and maintain group standards and, hence, enhance the group. Individualist cultures may use downward comparisons to boost self-esteem and enhance the individual. Several gender differences were also found. We discuss implicatins of this research and potential for future consumer research.



Citation:

Therese Louie and Deborah Cours (1999) ,"Examining Forced Social Comparisons: Effects of Ethnicity and Gender", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, eds. Bernard Dubois, Tina M. Lowrey, and L. J. Shrum, Marc Vanhuele, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 24-27.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 1999      Pages 24-27

EXAMINING FORCED SOCIAL COMPARISONS: EFFECTS OF ETHNICITY AND GENDER

Therese Louie, University of Washington, U.S.A.

Deborah Cours, California State University, Northridge, U.S.A.

ABSTRACT -

Although research has examined the propensity and implications of engaging in voluntary social comparisons, little research has examined what happens when comparison information is provided unsolicited, what we call "forced comparisons." This paper represents an exploratory study of forced comparisons. We compare Asian and non-Asian samples on their reports of receiving forced comparisons while growing up, of the nature of those comparisons (i.e. upward vs. downward), of the effect of those comparisons, and of their current propensity to engage in voluntary upward and downward social comparison as adults. We find that non-Asians report having received more downward (favorable) comparisons about their personality and behavior than Asians report. More Asians than non-Asians rate downward comparisons as having an unfavorable effect. Asians report engaging in more voluntary upward (unfavorable) comparisons than do non-Asians. In seeking to explain these differences, we speculate that perhaps collectivist cultures use upward comparisons to establish and maintain group standards and, hence, enhance the group. Individualist cultures may use downward comparisons to boost self-esteem and enhance the individual. Several gender differences were also found. We discuss implicatins of this research and potential for future consumer research.

FORCED SOCIAL COMPARISONS

Have you ever been told that your brother, sister, cousin, or friend is better or worse than you are on some trait? Most individuals have been subject to such "forced comparisons," occasions when they were compared to another individual without having requested that information. Although research has focused upon the impact of voluntary comparisons when individuals actively seek self-information by comparing themselves to others (e.g., Buunk, Collins, Taylor, VanYperen and Dakof 1990), there is a lack of research that examines what happens when comparison information is unsolicited. What types of forced comparisons do individuals endure, and how does the information shape their attitudes and interests?

Voluntary upward comparisons occur when one compares oneself to someone else who is rated more highly on a trait or behavior. This type of comparison, therefore, is unfavorable to the self and would be characterized by comparison statements such as "He’s better than I am" or "I’m not as good as she." Upward comparisons are informative. They provide us with information about in what areas we need to improve and about how to improve. We can observe how more successful others have performed and use that information to emulate their success. Upward comparisons can also lead to affiliative improvement, by which we engage in impression management by affiliating with successful others.

Despite the usefulness of upward comparisons, evidence suggests that people more frequently engage in downward social comparisons. Voluntary downward comparisons describe social comparisons in which one compares oneself to someone else who is rated more poorly than oneself on a trait or behavior. They are characterized by comparisons such as "I’m better than she" or "He’s not as good as me." Hence, this type of comparison results in a favorable comparison and is self-enhancing.

Social cognitive research has established in Western cultures that individuals engage in self-serving biases, particularly in the area of self-assessment. For example, Alicke (1985) and Brown (1986) show that positive personality traits are rated as more representative of the self than are negative traits. Individuals also show better cognitive processing and memory for positive personality information than for negative personality information about the self (Kuiper and Derry 1982; Kuiper and MacDonald 1982; Kuiper et al. 1985). Although it is important to have accurate information about the self in order to manage self-presentation and engage in successful decision-making, among other things, research demonstrates that there are benefits to engaging in positive self-assessment. Individuals who exhibit positive biases in self-assessment generally possess higher self-esteem, which leads to greater performance and reported happiness (Taylor and Brown 1988).

As mentioned above, self-serving biases have been well-established in North American samples. However, researchers have had difficulty replicating the effect in non-Western cultures. For example, Heine and Lehman (1995) found that Canadians demonstrated significantly more unrealistic optimism than did a Japanese sample. The authors speculated that perhaps the lack of self-serving biases in Asian populations was due to the collectivist nature of the culture, as opposed to the individualistic nature of Canadian and U.S. culture. Hofstede (1991) presents individual-collectivism as an important defining dimension of cultures. This dimension has been shown in the consumer literature to predict attitudinal and behavioral differences (c.f., Aaker and Maheswaran 1997). Individualist cultures (e.g. Canada and the United States) promote the separateness and uniqueness of the individual; success is usually defined according to individual achievement. Collectivist cultures (e.g. China, Hong Kong, and Japan) tend to prmote similarity within the group and define success according to the group’s achievement. Heine and Lehman (1997) hypothesized, therefore, that Asians might demonstrate a group-serving bias rather than a self-serving bias. However, they found no support in a Japanese sample for either self-serving or group-serving biases.

Our research is exploratory in nature and seeks an initial understanding of the commonality of upward and downward forced comparisons, the individual’s evaluation of the effects of those comparisons, and the resulting likelihood of later engaging in voluntary comparisons. Our research investigates these issues and examines how the nature of comparisons differs between Asian and non-Asian cultures.

HYPOTHESES

Due to different cultural orientations, we might expect non-Asians to demonstrate a positive self-assessment bias, in which they will be subject to and seek more downward social comparisons by which an individual stands out and above from others. Likewise, we predict that Asians will be subject to and maybe even seek more upward social comparisons by which the individual can note and attain group norms. Specifically:

H1:  Non-Asians will report being subjected to more favorable forced comparisons than will Asians

H2:  Asians will report being subjected to more unfavorable forced comparisons than will non-Asians.

H3:  Non-Asians will engage in more favorable voluntary comparisons than will Asians.

H4:  Asians will engage in more unfavorable voluntary comparisons than will non-Asians.

H5:  Asians will believe that favorable comparisons have a more negative effect than will non-Asians.

H6:  Non-Asians will believe that unfavorable comparisons have a more negative effect than will Asians.

We also explored differences in the nature and use of social comparison across men and women. We suspected that forced comparisons are more likely to occur in domains that are relevant to role development. For example, athletic skill is stereotypically considered more important for men than women, while artistic ability is generally considered a feminine characteristic. Hence, we hypothesized that males and females would be the target of different types of comparisons: males might be subject to more references about their athletic skill, and females might be subject to more references about their artistic ability.

H7:  Men will report being subject to more forced comparisons about their athletic abilities than will women.

H8:  Women will report being subject to more forced comparisons about their artistic abilities than will men.

METHOD

Sample

The sample consisted of 296 students at large universities in Canada and Hong Kong. Individuals were classified as Asian if their ancestry was from an Asian country. This included the sample from a university in Hong Kong, recent immigrants from Hong Kong to Canada, and Asian-Canadians. [Please note that when the last group is left out and we consider only subjects who grew up in Hong Kong, the results are almost identical. Minor differences are explained by loss of "n" and power.] The sample consisted of 63 male non-Asians, 37 male Asians (19 of whom grew up in Canada and who have parents or grandparents from Asia), 102 female non-Asians, and 94 female Asias (34 of whom grew up in Canada and who have parents or grandparents from Asia).

Questionnaire

Subjects each completed a similar questionnaire, in which they were asked to rate how often they have been compared, by others, to others throughout their lives on a number of different traits (i.e. athletic ability, physical appearance, academic performance or intelligence, artistic abilities, and personality or behavior). Respondents were also asked to rate the frequency both of (downward) comparisons that were favorable to them (i.e., "You are better than #person X’") and of those (upward) that were unfavorable to them (i.e., "You are not as good as #person X’"). Responses were recorded using a 10-point scale on which each point was labeled, ranging from "never" (0) to "more than once a week" (9). In addition, respondents revealed by free response whether forced comparisons had positive or negative effects on them. These open-ended responses were coded by an independent judge as describing a "favorable effect" or an "unfavorable effect." Finally, respondents were asked how often they compared themselves to others (engagement in voluntary comparisons). This response was collected on the same 10-point scale as was used to measure frequency of forced comparisons.

Analysis

ANOVA was used to analyze the effects of gender, ethnicity and the interaction term in explaining the frequency of forced and unforced comparisons. Chi-square analysis was used to evaluate differences between Asians’ and non-Asians’ beliefs about the long-run effects of favorable and unfavorable forced comparisons.

Results

The results reveal different effects of forced comparisons based upon both gender and ethnicity. (Table 1 reports all means.) There were no significant interaction effects; therefore, the ethnicity differences discussed below occurred similarly across genders and the gender differences occurred similarly across ethnicities.

Hypothesis 1, which predicted that non-Asians would report having received more downward forced comparisons than would Asians, was supported in only one domain. Non-Asians reported more favorable forced comparisons related to their personality and behavior than did Asians (F(1, 294)=4.73, p<.05). Hypothesis 2 was not supported. There were no significant differences between Asians and non-Asians in the reported frequency of upward forced comparisons in any domain.

No support was found for Hypothesis 3, which predicted that non-Asians would report engaging in more frequent voluntary downward (favorable) comparisons than would Asians. However, Hypothesis 4, which predicted that Asians would report engaging in more frequent voluntary upward comparisons than would non-Asians, was marginally supported (F(1, 253)=3.54, p=.06).

Hypothesis 5 predicted that Asians would report a more unfavorable effect of downward comparisons and was supported (c2 (1)=4.221, p<.05). The frequency distribution is provided in Table 2. From that distribution, we see that while even a slight majority of non-Asians believed that the downward forced comparisons had a long run unfavorable effect, a significantly greater proportion of Asian subjects reported that there was an unfavorable effect of downward forced comparisons. There were no differences between Asians and non-Asians in their beliefs about the long run effects of upward forced comparisons; hence, Hypothesis 6 was not supported.

Several gender differences were supported by the data. Hypothesis 7 predicted that men would experience more forced comparisons, both upward and downward, about their athletic abilities than would women. This was supported only for downward comparisons (F (1, 294)=32.66, p<.001). There was no significant difference for upward comparisons. Tesser’s model of self-evaluation maitenance (e.g Tesser 1988), may help explain this finding. Tesser claims that individuals need to feel good about themselves and will engage in downward comparison in domains central to the self-concept and will avoid upward comparison in those areas. However, individuals may seek upward comparison in domains that are less relevant to the self-concept. Because Tesser’s model is based on individuals’ self-evaluation processes, and we are examining comparisons made by others in this current research, we did not base our hypotheses on this model. However, it is possible that family members, the most likely sources of forced comparisons, will behave in the target’s interest. Therefore, because athletic performance is often believed to be more important for males, and hence more central to the self concept, than for females, upward comparisons about athletic performance may be avoided. Also, we might speculate that because athletics is often considered masculine trait, compliments or downward comparisons serve to strengthen the masculine role. Less flattering upward comparisons could be perceived as a threat to masculinity.

As anticipated, relative to males, females received more favorable comparisons about their artistic skill (F(1, 295)=7.55, p<.01), partially supporting Hypothesis 8. Somewhat surprisingly, males received more unfavorable comparisons about their artistic skill (F(1, 296)=4.62, p<.05). Although this pattern only supports half of our hypothesis, Tesser’s argument again provides a possible explanation for these data. Artistic ability is stereotypically considered to be a feminine trait, so artistic ability may be more central to the average female’s self-concept than to the average male’s. Downward, favorable comparisons of a girl’s artistic abilities will reinforce this feminine trait, while upward, unfavorable comparisons could be a threat to her femininity. Also, because artistic ability is seen to be a feminine trait, boys may receive more unfavorable, upward comparisons of their artistic abilities to strengthen a masculine rather than feminine self-concept.

TABLE 1

MEANS FOR FREQUENCY OF FORCED COMPARISONS ON PERSONAL TRAITS (0=NEVER, 9=1/WEEK)

TABLE 2

FREQUENCY DISTRIBUTION FOR REPORTED LONG RUN EFFECT OF FAVORABLE FORCED COMPARISONS

DISCUSSION

This research should serve as an exploratory study of forced comparisons and their impact on later social comparison behavior. We have also explored gender and cultural differences, finding some support for each. Interestingly, the cultural differences were common across genders, while the gender differences were common across culture.

Although this paper did not specifically address consumption behavior, it certainly has relevance for consumer research. We know that consumers look to others for guidance in consumption behavior and that people use consumption activities to engage in impression management. One common type of advertisement appeal that is widely discussed and used is a referent appeal. Hence, advertising, in essence, often creates or forces social comparison. Understanding the implications of forced upward and downward comparisons might influence strategies for selection of spokespersons or the structure of referent appeals. We suggest that further research into social comparison, voluntary and forced, will provide useful insights to consumer behavior and response to advertising.

REFERENCES

Aaker, Jennifer L. and Durairaj Maheswaran (1997), "The Effect of Cultural Orientation on Persuasion," Journal of Consumer Research, 24 (December), 315-328.

Buunk, Bram P., Rebecca L. Collins, Shelley E. Taylor, Nico W. VanYperen, and Gayle A. Dakof (1990), "The Affective Consequences of Social Comparison: Either Diretion Has Its Ups and Downs," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59(6), 1238-1249.

Heine, Steven J. and Darrin R. Lehman (1995), "Cultural Variation in Unrealistic Optimism: Does the West Feel More Vulnerable than the East?" Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68 (April), 595-607.

Heine, Steven J. and Darrin R. Lehman (1997), "The Cultural Construction of Self-Enhancement: An Examination of Group-Serving Biases," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72 (June), 1268-1283.

Hofstede, Geert (1991), Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, London: McGraw-Hill.

Taylor, Shelley E. and J. D. Brown (1988), "Illusions and Well-Being: A Social Psychological Perspective on Mental Health," Psychological Bulletin, 103, 193-210.

Tesser, A. (1988), "Toward a Self-Evaluation Maintenance Model of Social Behavior," in L. Berkowitz, ed., Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 21, New York: Free Press, 181-227.

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Authors

Therese Louie, University of Washington, U.S.A.
Deborah Cours, California State University, Northridge, U.S.A.



Volume

E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4 | 1999



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