Compared to What? The Importance of Control Groups in Social Comparison Research

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Two experiments demonstrate the importance of control groups in social comparison research. When comparing to downward targets leads to more favorable self-evaluations than comparing to upward targets, results are often interpreted as demonstrating bidirectional contrast effects. However, without a no-comparison control group, these claims cannot be supported. The present experiments provided participants with performance feedback; some participants received information about an upward target, a downward target, or a bidirectional target (one upward, one downward). Results suggest that social comparison effects are not always bidirectional: Downward and bidirectional comparisons led to contrast whereas upward comparisons were not different from the control. Experiment 2 assessed the role of lateral targets. Overall, results suggest that existing interpretations of contrast effects should be reexamined.