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Hedonic consequences of social comparison: A contrast of happy and unhappy people

Sonja Lyubomirsky
University of California, Riverside
Lee Ross
Stanford University

Published in 'Journal of Personality and Social Psychology', 73, 1141-1157, 1997

Consisting of two experiments, this study tested the hypothesis that happy individuals are less sensitive to unsolicited social comparison information in general, and less vulnerable to unfavourable social comparison information in particular, compared to unhappy individuals.

Study 1
50 female undergraduate students from Stanford University took part in this experiment.  25 were rated as 'happy' and 25 were rated as 'unhappy' on a self-reported scale of happiness.  Participants were allowed to solve anagrams at whatever rate they were capable of but the performance of a peer was manipulated.  They either experienced relative success (i.e. the peer performed worse) or they experienced relative failure (i.e. the peer performed better).  The unhappy participants were affected more by unfavourable social comparison information.  If they witnessed the peer solving the anagram faster than them, they expressed greater doubts about their own ability to perform the task and they even reported liking the task less.  Furthermore, they demonstrated a greater tendency to depress positive moods as a result of unfavourable social comparison.  In contrast, happy individuals showed no tendency to respond negatively to the unfavourable social comparison provided by their faster peer.

These findings suggest that happy individuals may not take into account negative social comparison information when evaluating themselves but may instead use internal resources.  They may also be particularly successful at ignoring or otherwise defending themselves against the potentially negative hedonic consequences of unfavourable comparisons.  The researchers highlighted that it was indeed happiness scores, and not self-esteem or optimism scores, that accounted for the difference in responses between happy and unhappy individuals.

Study 2
81 undergraduate students (Female = 37; Male = 44) from Stanford University took part in this experiment.  The experimenters informed the participants that they were taking part in a study about the effectiveness of television teaching.  They were placed into pairs and asked to use hand puppets to teach children about conflict resolution while they were supposedly being assessed.  One group were given feedback (positive or negative) about their own performance but not about the performance of their peer.  The other group were given feedback about their own performance and whether their peer's performance was better or worse.  Happy people were again less sensitive to unwelcome social comparison than unhappy people.  The unhappy individuals reported more positive changes in mood and self-confidence when they received a poor report about their own performance and information that their peer was worse, compared to hearing an excellent evaluation and feedback that their peer received a better report.  

Overall, the happy people in both experiments proved to be less responsive to potentially negative social comparison information than were unhappy people.

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