Social Comparisons of Possessions: When It Feels Good and When It Feels Bad

ABSTRACT - This study examines social comparisons of possessionsBwhat happens when a consumer discovers that someone has a better product or brand. We focus especially on the feelings generated by such comparisons. The feelings of consumers toward social comparisons of possessions could be a potent source of social influence on product purchases. Using remembered incidents of product comparisons, this study investigates the emotions and consequences of these comparisons as well as appraisals. The results shed light on how consumers can become dissatisfied with their possessions and desire to repurchase products they already own.


David Ackerman, Deborah MacInnis, and Valerie Folkes (2000) ,"Social Comparisons of Possessions: When It Feels Good and When It Feels Bad", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, eds. Stephen J. Hoch and Robert J. Meyer, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 173-178.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, 2000      Pages 173-178


David Ackerman, California State University, Northridge

Deborah MacInnis, University of Southern California

Valerie Folkes, University of Southern California


This study examines social comparisons of possessionsBwhat happens when a consumer discovers that someone has a better product or brand. We focus especially on the feelings generated by such comparisons. The feelings of consumers toward social comparisons of possessions could be a potent source of social influence on product purchases. Using remembered incidents of product comparisons, this study investigates the emotions and consequences of these comparisons as well as appraisals. The results shed light on how consumers can become dissatisfied with their possessions and desire to repurchase products they already own.


Consumer behavior theories often focus on internal processes influencing choice. Yet, consumption is very much a social phenomenon. How people think and feel about products is influenced by those around them.

One approach that captures the interpersonal aspect of consumptin is social comparison theory. Social comparison theory maintains that individuals compare themselves to others to evaluate the ability level and the suitability of their opinions (Festinger 1954). Hence, consumers will compare their possessions with relevant others to help determine whether their evaluations of products are correct (for a review, see Folkes and Kiesler 1991).

Whereas research on social comparison theory has focused on its consequences for attitudes, comparisons can also give rise to emotions, feelings of satisfaction with the owned product and desire for the unowned product. People experience such emotions as envy, jealousy and anger when they compare their abilities to others with superior talents (Salovey and Rodin 1991; Bers and Rodin 1984). The research presented here breaks new ground by examining the emotions people experience when they compare their possessions to others. In particular, it identifies specific emotions that underlie contexts in which a social comparison of possessions stimulates negative emotions and those that stimulate positive emotions. Further, it investigates the relationship between specific emotions, consumers’ satisfaction with possessions and their desire for the product owned by the comparison other. Finally, it sheds light on why some social comparisons of possessions make consumers feel good while others make them feel bad. Specifically, the way in which consumers appraise their situation vis a vis the comparison other may affect their feelings, satisfactions and desires.

Social comparisons and response valence

In general, social comparison in which one compares unfavorably to a comparison other is thought to evoke negative feelings (e.g., Tesser et al. 1988). For example, idealized images of women in advertising often invite unfavorable comparisons with the self, presenting a threat to self-esteem (Richins 1991). Given the relationship between unfavorable social comparisons and negative feelings, one might anticipate that social comparisons engender dissatisfaction with owned products when a better product is discovered to be owned by a significant other. Although this link has not been tested empirically, it is consistent with research that finds greater dissatisfaction when one’s own product performs worse than product norms (Woodruff et al. 1983; Yi 1993). Also, Krishnamurthi and MacInnis (1995) suggest that market introduction of new products can lead to consumer dissatisfaction with existing products.

Nevertheless, social comparisons need not always elicit negative responses. Obviously, positive responses may be evoked when a relevant other’s ability is inferior (a downward comparison; Taylor 1983). More interestingly, though, is that people sometimes respond positively when a relevant comparison other has superior abilities. People bask in reflected glory when that ability is not relevant to one’s self-concept (Tesser 1990). Self-evaluation can be reinforced by the outstanding performance or ability of a close friend (Cialdini et al. 1976). That reflection process can lead to basking in reflected glory (Cialdini 1976)Bpositive feelings from a pride in another (Tesser 1990). It seems likely that knowing that another has a superior possession could also evoke positive responses when the product is not relevant to the self-concept.

In sum, when people compare themselves to others with superior possessions, responses can be either positive or negative. Negative responses are likely to lead to product dissatisfaction, elicited when the comparison product is highly relevant to the self-concept. Positive responses to comparisons are likely to be associated with more product satisfaction than are negative responses, and are likely to arise only when the product under comparison is not relevant to the self-concept.

Types of emotions arising from social comparisons

Although it is clear that responses to social comparisons can be either positive or negative, theemotion literature suggests that a better of understanding of a phenomenon is attained by going beyond such gross distinctions, and instead identifying specific types of feelings evoked by the comparison. An emotion is an affective state generated in response to one’s perception of a situation (Cohen and Areni 1991; Smith and Ellsworth 1987). The consumer satisfaction literature (Oliver 1993; Westbrook and Oliver 1991) and the consumption experience literature (e.g., Richins 1997; Arnould and Price 1993; Holbrook and Hirschman 1982) provide evidence that people experience a variety of specific emotions when they think about products rather than simply feeling just "good" or "bad".

Comparison of one’s possessions with those of others is also likely to elicit some emotions more than others. When people compare themselves with others who have superior outcomes, they often feel envy or jealousy and anger (e.g., Crosby 1976; Walker and Pettigrew 1984). Envy and jealousy have obvious applicability to possessions. The appraisal literature provides specific theory-based insight into what emotions might be evoked by the social comparison of possessions and why these emotions might be elicited.

Appraisals and emotions

Appraisals are cognitions that involve an assessment of what is happening and what it implies for personal well being (Lazarus 1991; Smith et al. 1993). A given outcome can lead to a number of appraisals (e.g., is the outcome fair, is it controllable, who is to blame). As well as being a condition for the experience of emotion, certain appraisals influence specific patterns of emotions (Smith et al; 1993; Smith and Ellsworth 1987). A basic appraisal component for emotion is caring about an outcome. If one does not care about outcomes, one will feel neither positive nor negative emotions. Negative emotions arise from appraisals that something undesirable or goal incongruent has happened (Lazarus 1991).

Appraisals that a negative social comparison is unfair give rise to anger (e.g., Martin 1981; Sweeney et al. 1990). Since another’s possession of a superior product to one’s own might be attributed to that person’s unfairly acquiring it, anger seems a logical response to social comparison of possessions also. Attributions that the undesirable event is controllable or intentional by the other person also elicit anger (e.g., Folkes 1984). It may well be that anger is also evoked in response to a person perceived as intentionally flaunting ownership of a superior product.

Envy, jealousy, embarrassment, shame and humiliation are esteem-related emotions that seem relevant to social comparison of possessions. The self-evaluation maintenance literature emphasizes the esteem-enhancing and esteem- threatening aspects of comparisons (e.g., (Tesser et al. 1988; Pleban and Tesser 1981; Tesser and Campbell 1980). The appraisal literature indicates that embarrassment is elicited when individuals believe themselves to be responsible for an unfavorable outcome (Roseman et al. 1996). Similarly, feelings of shame are related to attributions that one could control one’s failures (e.g., Weiner 1986). Hence, beliefs that one could control and is responsible for possessing an inferior product could lead to feelings of shame, embarrassment and humiliation.

On the other hand, positive emotions arise from appraisals that something desirable or motive consistent has happened (Roseman et al. 1996). Research suggests that happiness is a general outcome related positive emotion (Lazarus 1991). It may best reflect the kind of generalized good feelings from basking in reflected glory. Such basking is experienced even though one lacks control or is responsible for another’s superior ability or, in the case at hand, another’s ownership of a superior product.

In sum, appraisals are linked to the types of emotions people experience. In the rather exploratory study presented here, a limited set of emotions and appraisals are examined as potentially relevant to understanding the social comparison of possession. Our study contrasted the feelings, appraisals, and product satisfaction reported by respondents who had experienced either good or bad feelings in response to a social comparison in which the comparison other owned a superior product.


The research necessitated a method that would allow us to explore and compare emotions, appraisals, and feelings of product satisfactions when the comparison made them feel good vs. when it made them feel bad. To facilitate the comparison and to control for individual differences in emotionality, appraisal biases, and optimistic vs. pessimistic tendencies, we used a within-subjects design. Forty-two undergraduate business students served as respondents. All who agreed to participate completed the task.


Subjects were asked to remember and describe in detail two experiences involving the social comparison of possessions (cf. Roseman et al. 1990; Smith and Ellsworth 1987). One week separated the two reports. In both cases, subjects described a situation in which someone they knew purchased a product much better than one they owned and for which they were previously satisfied. In one case, subjects were asked to report on a situation in which the social comparison made them feel good. In the other case, they were asked to report on a situation in which the social comparison made them feel bad. The order in which the reports was generated was randomized.

The type of products subjects did not differ much across the negative and positive emotion conditions. Cars were most frequently mentioned by subjects in both conditions (Mbad=13, Mgood=13). Computers (Mbad=9, Mgood=9) and clothing (Mbad=7, Mgood=6) were the next most frequently mentioned.


Social Comparison Emotions. A modified version of the emotion inventories of Burke and Edell (1989) and Richins (1997) was used to measure emotions elicited by a social comparison of products. Eleven emotions, eight negative and three positive, were measured. Correlation and factor analyses revealed three groups of negative emotions and one group of positive emotions. Humiliation, shame and embarrassment loaded on one factor (M=2.39, a=.95), jealousy and envy loaded on second factor (M=4.13, a=.84), and anger and frustration loaded on a third (M=2.95, a=.95). Happiness and gladness loaded on the fourth factor (M=3.25, a=.97). Anxiety and empathy did not load on any of the factors so we did not include them in the measures.

Appraisals. Twenty-one items, each using a seven-point agree-disagree Likert scale, were used to indicate the various appraisal dimensions. The scale was derived from Lazarus’ (1991) appraisal components and modified by a review of the social comparison (Tesser 1990; Tesser et al. 1988) and relative deprivation (Sweeney et al. 1991; Martin 1981) literatures.

Seven subscales were identified through factor analysis. The first measures how much subjects cared about what happened (M=4.23, a=.96), while the second assesses desirability of the outcome for the subject (M=3.10, a=.90). The third component, assesses perceived fairness of the situation (M=2.83, a=.96). The fourth component, assesses the degree to which the situation affected self-esteem (M=2.48, a=.95).

The fifth component measures the degree of responsibility subjects felt for the outcome of the situation (M=2.25, a=.91). A higher number indicates higher self-blame. The sixth component measures how well subjects coped (M=5.72, a=.98). The seventh assesses the degree of control subjects felt they had over the outcome of the situation (M=4.24, a=.92). A higher number on this scale indicates high control over the siuation (e.g., by purchasing the desired product).

Change in satisfaction for the owned product (M=3.21, a=.97) was measured using a three-item, seven-point, bipolar scale (became very dissatisfied/became very satisfied).A lower number indicates lower possession satisfaction. Desire for the product owned by the comparison other (M=5.60, a=.83) was also measured using a three-item, seven-point bipolar scale (very desirable/very undesirable, appealing/not appealing, not want/really want).

Manipulation Checks

Three items, each measured on a 7-point agreement scale (a=.72), confirmed that subjects described a situation in which another person’s possession was better than their own. Questions asked whether subjects perceived the other’s product to be "not as good as," "better" or "higher in quality" than their own. In both the "feel good" and "feel bad" conditions, subjects perceived that the other person owned a better product. However, those reporting situations which made them feel bad perceived that the comparison other’s product was better (M=5.55) than those that reported on situations that made them feel good (M=4.67; t=-3.23, p<.001).




Comparisons between the emotions, satisfaction, desires for the unowned product and appraisals for consumers in the positive and negative emotions conditions were done by t-tests. We analyzed the relationship of the emotion clusters to satisfaction with the owned product and desires for the unowned one by regression analysis. Lastly, we also examined the link between appraisal components and social comparison emotions.

Table 1 reveals clear differences between the "feel bad" and "feel good" social comparison of possession conditions (see Table 1). Consumers reported feeling more embarrassed, envious, and angry in "feel bad" vs. "feel good" social comparison of possession situations, and reported feeling happier in "feel good" situations. "Feel bad" social comparisons of possessions were also associated with less satisfaction with the owned product possession (Mgood=5.01, Mbad=3.21, t=6.31, p<.01) and greater desire for the product owned by the comparison other (Mbad=5.60, Mgood=5.17, t=-2.09, p<.05). Within conditions, happiness and envy were the most intensely experienced emotions. However, happiness was more intensely experienced emotion in the "feel good" condition (Mgood= for happiness versus Mgood=2.85 for envy, t=). In the "feel bad" condition, envy was more intensely experienced emotion (Mbad=for envy vs. Mbad=for happiness).

Social comparisons of possessions creating bad vs. good feelings are also different in how these situations were appraised. Table 1 shows that consumers tended to appraise "feel bad" situations as more unfair than "feel good" situations, and tended to appraise the "feel good" situation, as one for which outcomes were more desirable, and for which self-responsibility was high. "Feel good" (vs. feel bad) situations were also more likely to be appraised as involving a situation relevant to the respondent’s self-esteem.

The relationship among variables was further examined by conducting regressions of emotions on consequences. Table 2 shows that more embarrassment, envy and anger consumers felt about the social comparison situation, the more dissatisfaction they felt with the product they owned. More interestingly, only envy was related to desire for the unowned product. Since this emotion was high in both the "feel good" and "feel bad" conditions, envy must have been an important factor behind the generally high levels of desire. The positive emotions had no effect on either satisfaction or desire.

Further insight into the relationshipbetween appraisals, emotions, and satisfaction is gleaned from regressions of appraisals on emotions (see Table 3). Embarrassment from a social comparison of possessions is evoked in response to social comparisons about which subjects care deeply and which are relevant to their self-esteem. Envy and anger evoked from social comparison of possessions are driven by situations appraised as unfair. Finally, feelings of happiness evoked from social comparison of possessions are driven by situations appraised as having a desirable outcome and for which the ability to cope is high. The remaining relationships between appraisals and emotions were insignificant, though some might gain significance with a larger sample size and greater power.


The apparent ease with which subjects generated incidents involving social comparisons of possessions suggest that they may be a common phenomenon. Further, not all of the comparisons are associated with negative feelingsBsome are associated with positive feelings. Unfavorable social comparisons of products produce a complex set of emotions, the strongest of which are envy and jealousy. Surprisingly in light of previous literature on social comparison of abilities, the within condition means reported in Table 1 suggest that in the "feel bad" condition, emotions are not uniformly negative, but include feelings of happiness. This may have to do with the entity of comparison. In contrast to deficient abilities, dissatisfaction with a possession can often be attenuated by a trip to the store. Around 25 percent of subjects in the "feel bad" condition reported doing just that. Hence, the negative feelings may motivate consumers to take actions leading to positive feelings. Nevertheless, those subjects were still able to recall their lower satisfaction for and perhaps embarrassment over the owned possession, the desire to acquire the possession owned by the comparison other, and their feelings of anger and envy toward the comparison other.





Our results regarding the link between negative emotions and dissatisfaction are particularly noteworthy, as this relationship has not been previously tested. Notably, we focus here on social comparisons, not attributes and product experiences as predictors of satisfaction. Our results highlight the importance of social comparisons as part of the way consumers can become dissatisfied with a product that formerly adequately fulfilled needs. That dissatisfaction arises not from a change in the product’s performance, but through knowing that someone else owns something better. The fact that product owned by the comparison other in the "feel bad" condition was later purchased by 25 percent of the respondents in our sample reveals a potential link between social comparison induced dissatisfaction and problem recognition (and choice). By contrast, no one in the "feel good" condition purchased the product.

Another important finding is that envy is the only emotion related to desire for unowned products. Research has previously focused on the informational aspects of social influence on consumer purchases (Childers and Rao 1992; Folkes and Kiesler 1991) or compliance with social norms (Fisher and Ackerman 1998; Fisher and Price 1992) to influence individual behavior. Our results suggest that envy may also be an important part of social influence. Consumers can feel envious when they discover that socially close others own newer and better products, leading to a desire to emulate them. Thus, a benign form of envy from social comparisons of possessions may lead to the spread of innovations or fashions.

Nevertheless, our study is admittedly exploratory. We placed no restrictions on the context under which the social comparison of possessions took place, yet the emotions elicited by these types of comparisons could vary widely depending on where they took place and what type of product was involved. Further, memory biases may haveinfluenced the sort of experiences that subjects recalled.


An examination of social comparisons of products may help explain the dynamics of any context within which product repurchase takes place, such as new product adoption the spread of fashions or fads, and problem recognition. Consumers frequently repurchase products, even though they still own usable alternatives. Perhaps a consumer who already owns a need-satisfying product can become dissatisfied with that product, becoming needy again.

Much consumer adoption of new products, fashions or brands may be driven by the feelings that result from comparisons of one individual with another. In fact, social comparisons of products may help explain the coefficient of imitation that is used to explain the diffusion of innovations. The diffusion literature has focused on several dimensions of social influence on imitation in the adoption of new products. These include communication of information (Gatignon and Robertson 1991), conformity leading to imitation (Mahajan and Muller 1979) and more recently peer approval (Fisher and Price 1992). The negative feelings resulting from seeing other consumers possess the desired product or brand may be another potent source of desire to imitate.

Finally, while the problem recognition literature implies that needs for products and the stimulation of a search and choice process are driven by product dissatisfaction or novel acquisition needs, our results suggest the possibility that the problem recognition process is stimulated by social as opposed to product, need or product performance sources. Further study of the role of social comparisons in the problem recognition process is warranted.


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David Ackerman, California State University, Northridge
Deborah MacInnis, University of Southern California
Valerie Folkes, University of Southern California


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27 | 2000

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