Psychologists have long known that people evaluate themselves in part by contrasting their own attributes and abilities with those of others--a process called social comparison.
Now, Diederik Stapel, PhD, of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and Hart Blanton, PhD, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have demonstrated that even subliminal cues can prompt people to make automatic social comparisons.
"Past research has tended to look at this [social comparison effect] in a context where it's pretty obvious what's going on," Blanton says. "We wanted to get at the automaticity of it by having it occur outside of awareness."
In the study, published in APA's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 87, No. 4), Stapel and Blanton's 114 college student participants watched as pictures flashed on a computer screen for 110 milliseconds--too quickly for the participants to consciously realize the pictures' content. Half the participants viewed pictures of a baby girl, while the other half viewed pictures of an elderly woman. Later, participants who had viewed the baby picture rated themselves as older, on a seven-point scale from young to old, than participants who had viewed the picture of the elderly woman.
Stapel and Blanton then repeated the experiment with different stimuli: pictures of a clown and Albert Einstein and pictures of two female faces, one that most people would consider attractive and another most would find unattractive (the researchers pretested the faces for attractiveness on a seven-point scale; the attractive face had a mean score of 6.41 while the unattractive face scored 1.83). Each time, they found the same pattern: People who viewed the attractive face rated themselves as less attractive than people who viewed the unattractive face, and people who viewed the picture of Einstein rated themselves as less intelligent than people who viewed the clown.
The idea that undergirds the research, Blanton says, is that psychological processes that are crucial to survival become automated. An accurate self-perception is crucial, he adds, because it is necessary for navigating and responding to the social world--and to help develop an accurate self-perception we make social comparisons.
"If you think about it, we really couldn't evaluate ourselves without some form of comparison," says Blanton. "If I say that I am short or tall or fast or slow, these evaluations have to be made in relation to some standard or another. More often than not that standard is other people, and so this form of comparison comes up automatically."