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The virtues and vices of social comparisons: examining assimilative and contrastive emotional reactions to characters in a narrative

Abstract

Based on social comparison theory, this study investigates how awareness of one’s morality and exposure to a character in a narrative affect emotions associated with four types of social comparisons—upward assimilative, downward contrastive, upward contrastive, and downward assimilative. A 2 (Morality Salience: virtue, vice) X 2 (Character: moral, immoral) experiment (N = 106) revealed that those whose vices were made salient elicited stronger: (1) contempt (a downward contrastive emotion) toward an immoral character than a moral character, and (2) envy (an upward contrastive emotion) toward a moral character than an immoral character. Whereas envy decreased positive affect, contempt increased it. Implications for assimilative and contrastive social comparisons with media characters that lead to distinct affective outcomes are discussed.

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Correspondence to Mina Tsay-Vogel.

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Appendix A

Appendix A

Items assessing perceptions of the character’s moral nature
The main character does some immoral thingsa
The main character makes some right decisions
The main character has some moral attributes
The main character does mean things at timesa
The main character has some negative attributesa
The main character does some nice things
The main character has some immoral attributesa
The main character makes some wrong decisionsa
The main character has some positive attributes
The main character behaves in a moral way some of the time
The main character is an ethical person
  1. aReverse-coded items

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Tsay-Vogel, M., Krakowiak, K.M. The virtues and vices of social comparisons: examining assimilative and contrastive emotional reactions to characters in a narrative. Motiv Emot 43, 636–647 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-019-09756-y

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Keywords

  • Morality
  • Morality salience
  • Social comparison
  • Assimilation
  • Contrast
  • Emotion
  • Affect