Social comparison is the act of contrasting one’s own life with the lives of other people as they are publicly represented. When people believe that the represented lives of others are superior to their own, social comparison can lead to issues caused by the fear of missing out (FOMO), including anxiety, depression and a lack of self-esteem.
The term is particularly relevant to social media. Facebook, for example, serves as a platform for people to represent themselves and their lives to others. That representation, however, is unlikely to align very closely to the individual’s actual life. People tend to create a curated version, either consciously or unconsciously deciding how they want to depict themselves, their activities, their opinions and their environments.
Most people post about the highlights of their lives such as celebrations, vacations, travel and achievements, rather than the everyday details that make up the vast majority of our lives, let alone their darker or less laudable moments. On some level, we usually understand that what we see in the posts of others is highlights rather than a reflection of the whole. Nevertheless, we often compare our own real lives to an idealized version of the lives of others, based on their posts, which can lead to feelings of inferiority. At the same time, those whose online personas contrast sharply with reality may also suffer from a loss of self-esteem. Facebook comments, likes and shares also provide fodder for comparisons.
Social psychologist Leon Festinger developed social comparison theory in the 1950s. According to Festinger, social comparison is a natural mechanism for the development of self-perception.