Thursday, January 12, 2023

Contrary to the moral comparison, appearance-based standards comparison is most frequently made with those of better looks than our own, and we suffer for it

How we compare: A new approach to assess aspects of the comparison process for appearance-based standards and their associations with individual differences in wellbeing and personality measures. Peter A. McCarthy, Thomas Meyer, Mitja D. Back, Nexhmedin Morina. PLOS, January 11, 2023.

Abstract: We introduce a novel approach to assess habitual comparison processes, while distinguishing between different types of comparison standards. Several comparison theories (e.g., social) suggest that self-evaluations use different standards to inform self-perception and are associated with wellbeing and personality. We developed the Comparison Standards Scale for Appearance (CSS-A) to examine self-reported engagement with social, temporal, criteria-based, dimensional, and counterfactual comparisons for upward and downward standards in relation to appearance. The scale was completed by three hundred participants online alongside measures of appearance schemas, social comparison evaluations, depression, anxiety, stress, self-esteem, physical self-concept, narcissism, and perfectionism. The CSS-A was found to reliably assess individual differences in upward and downward comparison frequency and affective impact for multiple comparison standards. In line with theory, CSS-A upward comparisons were more frequent than downward comparisons and coincided with negative (versus positive) affective impact. Comparison intensity (i.e., comparison frequency × discrepancy) predicted negative and positive affective impact for upward and downward comparisons, respectively. This relationship was partially mediated by appearance concern for upward comparisons (a composite of appearance schemas and physical self-concept), yet moderated by negativity for downward comparisons (a composite of depression, anxiety, stress, and self-esteem). We offer a framework for measuring the comparison process that warrants further research on underlying comparison processes, for which the CSS(-A) and experience sampling methods should serve as useful tools.


This study presents a novel approach to assess between-person differences in aspects of the comparison process as they relate to appearance self-perception. Results suggest that the CSS-A reliably assesses individual differences across five types of comparison standards and engendered affective reaction. Participants reported more upward than downward comparisons and comparison intensity was significantly associated with affective impact. Appearance concern partially accounted for the aversive affective consequences of upward comparisons, while the positive association between downward intensity and affective impact was weaker for individuals who reported higher negativity ratings.

Structure & properties of the CSS-A items

Analyses of frequency items showed good reliability and the two-factor structure indicates that all types of standards are used in upward and downward appearance-based comparisons. Exploratory factor analyses for items per standard could only support extraction of a social standard factor, likely due to the greater potential of specific social standards (eight) compared to the other standards (four each). However, social standards are also more commonly used to inform appearance-based self-perceptions due to physical representations and socio-cultural phenomena such as advertising and social media, [e.g., 6062]. This was supported by the CFA, where the general appearance factor was defined by a social item.

As expected, upward comparisons were more frequently reported than downward comparisons and were associated with predominantly negative affective impact, while downward comparisons were predominantly positive. In the EFA, the upward and downward comparison factors accounted for 25% of the common variance in frequency, however the downward comparison factor explained a relatively low amount of this, which usually indicates the items do not accurately measure a shared latent factor. Yet in the CFA, downward items accounted for variance in the general factor and the downward factor, where loadings were stronger for the latter. This indicates that while downward standards are utilised, they are less salient in appearance comparisons, supporting previous findings that they are not as common as upward standards [63,64]. Downward comparisons may be rather reactive, rather than self-initiated, and involve more flexible standards [65], thus being less consistent and more difficult to recall than upward comparisons.

Only future temporal, counterfactual, compensatory dimensional, and ideal criteria-based standards significantly contributed to a specific upward comparison factor, indicating that these captured less typical upward appearance comparisons. While taking the motivational significance of comparisons processes into account [1], we anticipated the future temporal and compensatory dimensional standards as appetitive (i.e., favourable) upward comparisons. This was supported by the positive mean affective impact ratings for these items, while the counterfactual comparison items were aversive, indicating that the upward factor represents both appetitive and aversive standards outside of the typical appearance comparisons. Specific standards could prove useful for identifying atypical comparison habits that have (dys)functional properties. For example, according to the functional theory of counterfactual thinking [66], excessive upward counterfactual thinking is associated with higher negative affect and depressive symptoms, supported in a review of upward counterfactual thinking [28]. Further investigation of comparison standards as indicators of self-perception is necessary, particularly to establish what constitutes excessive or dysfunctional appearance comparisons, as well as if this varies between dimensions. Our results show that the CSS-A is a useful tool for future research to consider multiple comparison standards when investigating appearance self-evaluation processes, as well as providing a framework for research in other domains.

While appearance comparisons are largely shaped by social and upward standards, other comparison dimensions may be shaped by different types of standards. For example, comparisons involved in assessing one’s wellbeing are predominantly based on upward comparisons using past temporal, social, and criteria-based standards, often with negative evaluations [3]. Whereas for academic and social performance, past and future temporal comparisons are most common and are associated with more positive self-evaluations than social and criteria-based comparisons [38]. We encourage further research using the CSS-A framework for other comparison dimensions to gain better insight into variations of the comparison process.

The roles of Appearance concern and negativity

Both appearance concern and negativity showed stronger associations with upward comparison intensity and affective impact than downward comparison intensity and affective impact, and both composite variables were associated with negative affective impact. We tested a provisional process-based approach to assess the mediating and moderating properties of the composite variables on the relationship between comparison intensity and affective impact. For upward comparisons, higher comparison intensity with higher appearance concern was associated with negative affective impact. For downward comparisons, the association between comparison intensity and positive affective impact was moderated by negativity, where low negativity scores were indicative of higher positive affective impact as intensity scores were higher. These results support previous findings that dimension salience and psychological wellbeing influence comparison outcomes and subsequent affective reactions [2,3], and could explain findings such as why only some individuals experience the touted benefits of downward comparisons [67]. Future research should focus on these relationships in-situ due to the dynamic nature of cognitions, emotions, and behaviour.

While our conclusions may appear self-evident, very little research has investigated influences of the comparison process outside of self-esteem, group differences, or motives, especially beyond social comparisons. Although beyond the scope of this paper, perception of changeability of an attribute has also been identified as a moderator of self-evaluative process and outcomes [68], which can be applied to the comparison process and consequences, such as change in affect [1]. For example, if an individual makes an unfavourable comparison about their appearance and perceive this as a fixed entity, they are more likely to be threatened by the comparison and experience a negative change in affect, particularly if appearance concern is high. However, should the individual perceive appearance as malleable, this could lead to optimism and a positive change in affect.

Measurement of the comparison process

Previous cross-sectional assessments of comparison standards have focused on unitary aspects of the comparison process, mostly the frequency of specific comparisons, such as in social [16] and counterfactual comparisons [69]. In a rare example of a multi-standard comparison scale, only frequency was assessed and the scale was limited to one item per direction and standard, and scoring ignored individual comparison standards [70]. Several reviews have reiterated that to fully understand the comparison process, it is important to consider various standards, direction of comparison, perceived (dis)similarity and engendered reactions [1,2,5]. The conceptualization of the CSS-A is therefore necessary to assess key aspects of the comparison process, with comparison intensity and affective impact variables providing respective indicators of comparison evaluation outcomes and engendered reaction. Literature investigating the associations of comparison habits with body-image perception and eating disorders have all but focused on social comparison [23,71,72], yet our results show that individuals engage with multiple types of standards. Observed gender differences in comparison intensity and affective impact ratings also occurred within upward standards, where women reported higher comparison intensity than men as well as lower negative affective impact scores. Investigating multiple comparison standards in body-image research could provide greater insight into individual differences when considering gender, as well as informing potential uses for clinical assessment and intervention.

Strengths and limitations

Previous self-report measures have predominantly focused on singular types of comparison standards or have been limited to one aspect of the comparison process. We developed the CSS-A to measure multi-standard comparisons in context of perceived appearance. Our approach incorporates several theories of comparison standards that have found comparative thinking influences self-perception. Yet, the following limitations deserve to be mentioned. Despite recruiting a large sample and following the general rule of thumb of at least 10:1 ratio of participants to items for obligatory scale items [73], a larger sample and a better distribution of age and gender would have benefited validity and reliability. In addition, convergent validity regarding standards is limited given the lack of comparable measures and subsequent novel development of the scale. Thus, future studies with larger samples are required to further establish the characteristics of the CSS-A. Another potential limitation is that we focused on upward and downward comparisons, omitting the possibility of lateral comparisons. The general comparison processing model of self-perception by Morina [1] defines lateral comparisons as fulfilling an important role in the self-evaluation process. For example, lateral social comparisons tend to be reported just as often as upward social comparisons [5]; however, upward and downward comparisons across various standards have been reported more often than lateral comparisons for the dimension of wellbeing [3]. We did not explicitly refer to lateral comparisons, yet we assessed the degree of comparison discrepancy, where a value of zero may suggest a lateral comparison. Thus, using the intensity variables per direction, we attempt to control for lateral comparisons while assessing the typical outcome of upward or downward comparison evaluations.

Future research

Our approach to assessing comparison as a process provides several avenues for future research. The current study focuses on appearance comparisons, however comparison tendencies represented by intensity and affective impact will likely differ depending on the comparison dimension, with contextual and individual differences influencing the comparison process [1]. Therefore further research can adapt the CSS-A to other specific comparison dimensions, such as trauma-related counterfactual comparisons [29]. Using the process-based approach to assessment with experience sampling methods will also facilitate the assessment of multiple comparison dimensions, as well as providing within-person data to see if our findings occur at state-level. Previous experience sampling in diary studies have often focused on specific types of comparison standards [1921], or were limited regarding information about comparison standards and self-evaluation [14]. Our approach could be applied to a diary method similar to Summerville and Roese [14] using prompts and a series of questions to assess what type of comparison standard was used, yet with a broader range of comparison standards, as well as additional questions addressing key aspects of comparison such as discrepancy. Finally, to examine the comparative impact of different types of comparison on appearance and engendered reactions experimental studies are required. More data on the comparison process at both trait and state levels will provide much needed insight on the aspects involved and how these contribute to beneficial and undesirable consequences.

Over Half Of Millennial Women Have Received Unsolicited NSFW Pics

Sexual violence laws: Policy implications of psychological sex differences. David M. Buss. Evolution and Human Behavior, January 11 2023,

Abstract: Laws act as levers to influence human behavior. Their effectiveness hinges on understanding an accurate model of human nature, particularly the psychological and behavioral components of that nature. Evolved sex differences in our sexual psychology are sometimes moderate to large in magnitude and highly replicable. Women, for example, typically judge the same set of actions—such as leering, sexual jokes, or unwelcome workplace advances—as more sexually harassing and upsetting than do men. When a generic “reasonable person” standard is applied to adjudicating sexual harassment cases, this standard can harm women if judges and juries are populated by “reasonable men.” Other relevant sex differences involve fears evoked by stalking victimization, defenses against rape such as tonic immobility, and negative emotions in response to certain forms of unsolicited sexual imagery. This paper argues that existing psychological sex differences should inform the construction and implementation of policies and laws that regulate forms of sexual violence such as sexual harassment, mate stalking, and rape.

In everyday life, people more often compare themselves to those who look better than they do - to their own detriment

Relativity in Social Cognition: Basic processes and novel applications of social comparisons. Christian Unkelbach et al. European Review of Social Psychology, Jan 10 2023.

Abstract: A key challenge for social psychology is to identify unifying principles that account for the complex dynamics of social behaviour. We propose psychological relativity and its core mechanism of comparison as one such unifying principle. To support our proposal, we review recent evidence investigating basic processes underlying and novel applications of social comparisons. Specifically, we clarify determinants of assimilation and contrast, evaluative consequences of comparing similarities vs. differences, attitudinal effects of spatial relativity, and how spatial arrangements determine perceived similarity, one of the antecedents of social comparisons. We then move to behavioural relativity effects on motivation and self-regulation, as well as imitation behaviour. Finally, we address relativity within the more applied areas of morality and political psychology. The reviewed research thereby illustrates how unifying principles of social cognition may be instrumental in answering old questions and discovering new phenomena and explanations.

General discussion

We proposed that social cognition is relative in nature. To substantiate this proposal, we illustrated the relativity’s importance and the importance of comparative thinking in eight sections (cf.

). The first four sections addressed basic processes influencing comparative thinking, while the latter four sections addressed influences of comparative thinking; on behaviours, both regulated and automatic, as well as the more applied aspects of moral and political psychology.

Our first section on the determinants of assimilation and contrast established a method and analysis that allows vigorous tests of comparison theories (Barker & Imhoff, 2021; Barker et al., 2020). The section also explains why Gerber et al. (2018)’s meta-analysis found little evidence for assimilation effects. For most people, Pope Francis is an extreme downward comparison standard on the athleticism dimension, while Serena Williams is an extreme upward standard, leading to contrast effects in judgements of athleticism. However, the “window of assimilation” (cf. Figure 1) might be much more difficult to hit and might vary from person to person. The first section thereby provides a strong methodological and theoretical advancement for research on classic social comparison phenomena.

The second section addressed a central assumption of the SAM (Mussweiler, 2003): People compare stimuli based on their similarities or differences. In combination with properties of the evaluative ecology (i.e., the frequency and diversity of positive and negative information; Unkelbach et al., 2019, 2020; cf. Figure 3), we predicted and found a novel effect, the “common good” phenomenon (Alves et al., 2017a). In a standard ecology, similarities are likely to be good, while differences are likely to be bad. This insight has important implications if one again realises the ubiquity of comparisons and how often people look for differences (see Alves et al., 2018, 2020). The second section thereby also illustrates how comparative thinking may contribute to processes of stereotyping and, ultimately, prejudice.

The third section addressed another evaluative consequence of relativity, building on the relative location of stimuli in space (Gerten & Topolinski, 2020). Relativity is not only ubiquitous in the social but also in the physical domain. The third section showed the evaluative consequences of such relative location due to processing facilitations. While this might appear rather abstract and the effect rather subtle, the implications for real-world applications are straightforward (e.g., how to arrange quantities in texts and pictures). Our third section thereby illustrates novel relativity effects that have been so far overlooked in the literature.

Our fourth section returned to the question of which stimuli are considered as comparison standards and addressed spatial distance as a moderator. The section illustrated this point with an increased probability of jointly categorising two stimuli (Schneider & Mattes, 2022; cf. Figure 8). Thus, because close stimuli appear more similar, they should be more likely to be selected as a comparison standard. We have to concede, though, that the respective experimental evidence is currently lacking. In addition, we did not yet investigate the joint implication of section four’s and section two, namely that close stimuli should also appear more positive compared to more distant stimuli (i.e., if they appear more similar, they should also appear more positive; Alves et al., 2017a).

Our fifth section then moved to a largely unexplored area of relativity and the corresponding comparative thinking, namely motivational effects (Diel and Grelle et al., 2021, Diel, Broeker, et al., 2021). The section shows how key motives postulated in social comparison research (i.e., self-evaluation, self-improvement, and self-enhancement) map onto comparison directions (i.e., lateral, upward, and downward), resulting in corresponding effects for goal pursuit from upward and downward comparisons (i.e., “pushing” or “disengagement” vs. “coasting”, respectively). The theoretical framework and the data provide a step from the cognitive judgement effects (e.g., self-esteem) to actual behavioural effects of relativity and social comparisons.

The sixth section continued the path towards behavioural effects of comparison. However, instead of motivated behaviour, the section addressed automatic imitation, which occurs between interaction partners (Genschow, Cracco, et al., 2021). The straightforward hypothesis, derived from the similarity function between a target and a standard, was that more similar targets should lead to stronger imitation behaviours. We could confirm this prediction initially (Genschow, Cracco, et al., 2021): If participants focus on similarities between themselves and the other person, they show more imitation behaviour. However, when we manipulated searching for similarities and differences not directly (as we did in the previous sections) but more indirectly via group membership (Genschow, Westfal, et al., 2021), the influence was no longer visible (cf. Figure 11). The similarity/difference perspective explains and unifies several documented moderators on imitation behaviour. However, the subtler effects of group membership failed to produce the predicted effects.

The seventh section advanced the relativity principle into the area of moral psychology. We found major differences between moral and social comparisons (cf.

; Fleischmann et al., 2021). Despite these differences, the section highlights the usefulness of an over-arching empirical framework. While theories of emotion and intuition strongly influence moral psychology, the section provides relevant insights from a social-cognitive comparison perspective.

Our last section applied the relativity principle to political psychology, showing that Republicans (in the US) accept pro-environmental messages more when the message is framed as a comparison to the past (“Restoring the planet”) rather than a comparison with a potential future (“Creating a new earth”; Baldwin & Lammers, 2016; Lammers & Baldwin, 2018).

Together, these eight sections lines show the usefulness of an overarching theoretical framework, here, what we termed the relativity principle, to generate new insights into novel areas (e.g., self-regulation, imitation, morality, and political psychology) and to understand existing (i.e., social comparison) phenomena better. Given both the breadth and depth of the reviewed results, we thus believe our review suggests that Festinger (1980, p. 246) was correct in his assumption that universal dynamics can be found in all of social psychology. At the very least, such universals provide a lens through which one can gain new perspectives on classic and contemporary research topics.


Despite the overall success of applying the relativity principle and the processes of comparative thinking to different areas, we must concede that our approach is flawed. It amounts to what Karl Popper (1934) called a confirmatory research strategy: We postulated that swans are white and went on to search for white swans (i.e., confirmatory evidence). We agree that science advances best by searching for black swans, that is, by trying to falsify a hypothesis.

However, one may also construe our strategy more positively. First, to stay within the metaphor, we provided some conceptual and theoretical clarifications on how to test if a swan is white (e.g., when does assimilation and contrast occur), antecedents of why the swan is white (e.g., spatial distance), and consequences of the swan being white (e.g., similarities are typically positive). Second, we discovered some unknown swan species (e.g., motivational effects) even in areas where one might assume that there are no swans (i.e., see Section 7 on moral psychology).

Our reviewed data might nevertheless represent only a small percentage of a larger psychological universe where relativity and comparative thinking play no role at all. This problem is not specific to the presented research program. It applies to every empirical investigation that does not rely on a representative sample (Brunswik, 1955) and inductively makes bottom-up inferences from a sample to a population (Becker et al., 2021). In our case, the sample is not participants and a population of people but a sample of research areas. Thus, our review is suggestive but cannot provide conclusive evidence for our claim.