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On the Cognitive (In)Efficiency of Social Comparisons with Media Images

Abstract

When female viewers make upward social comparisons to the appearance of women in thin-ideal media images, the typical results are decreases in self-evaluations of appearance and increases in negative mood. Here we investigated whether such comparisons are efficient mental processes, requiring few cognitive resources, or if they are more cognitively effortful. If social comparisons to media images are efficient, we should find evidence that they occur even when participants are engaged in a separate, simultaneous, cognitive task (i.e. when made cognitively busy) during exposure to the images. In two studies (N = 116) and (N = 177), Canadian female undergraduates from Southern Ontario viewed media images. Cognitive Busyness was induced in one group of participants by asking them to remember a complex 8-digit number (e.g. 78639946) while viewing the images. A second group of participants memorized only a very simple 8-digit number (11111111) and so were not cognitively busy. Self-evaluations of appearance and levels of negative mood were measured via visual-analogue scales both before and after exposure to the images. Despite the images having detrimental effects on the self-evaluations and mood of participants who were not cognitively busy, the images had no such effects on participants who were cognitively busy. In Study 2 even participants who scored highly on a measure of thin-ideal internalization did not seem to be affected by exposure to the images when cognitively busy. Thus, we found no evidence that social comparisons are efficient mental processes and instead suggest that social comparisons may require effortful processing.

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Want, S.C., Botres, A., Vahedi, Z. et al. On the Cognitive (In)Efficiency of Social Comparisons with Media Images. Sex Roles 73, 519–532 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-015-0538-1

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Keywords

  • Social comparison
  • Media images
  • Body image
  • Efficiency
  • Automaticity
  • Cognitive busyness