Handbook of Social Comparison

Part of the series The Springer Series in Social Clinical Psychology pp 173-200

Assimilative and Contrastive Emotional Reactions to Upward and Downward Social Comparisons

  • Richard H. SmithAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, University of Kentucky

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Henry Fleming, the central character of (Stephen Crane’s (1952/1895)) Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, eagerly joins the Union army although he knows little about war. Only much later does he realize how ignorant he is about whether he will run when the fighting starts. This uncertainty about himself sets off a disguised but full-scale search for social comparisons until, through the gut check of battle, he can “… watch his legs discover their merits and their faults” (Crane, 1952/1895, p. 21). Much of the classic and current social comparison theory would find support in how Fleming uses social comparisons during the several days portrayed in the novel (Suls & Miller, 1977; Suls & Wills, 1991). Festinger (1954) emphasized the role of uncertainty in motivating a person’s interest in social comparisons, and it is Fleming’s ignorance about his own capacity for bravery that first prompts him to probe for fears among the other soldiers so as “… to measure himself by his comrades” (Crane, 1952/1895, p. 21). Even the seemingly objective test of battle is confounded by social comparisons. In an early battle, Fleming panics and runs, but it is the sight of other soldiers turning tail first that induces his behavior, creating in social comparison terms a form of social validation (Cialdini, 1993) that spurs him to “…speed toward the rear in great leaps” (Crane, 1952/1895, p. 47).