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Individual Differences in Social Comparison and its Consequences for Life Satisfaction: Introducing a Short Scale of the Iowa–Netherlands Comparison Orientation Measure

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Abstract

Research in social psychology has shown individual variation in the tendency to compare one’s own opinions and abilities with those of other people, raising the question of whether social comparisons are psychological dispositions. To test the empirical validity of this proposition, Gibbons and Buunk (1999) created an instrument, the Iowa–Netherlands Comparison Orientation Measure (INCOM), that measures the tendency to engage in social comparison and captures central aspects of the self and the other. This paper analyzes the reliability and validity of the INCOM scale for the German population and discusses potentials for shortening the instrument for continued use in large-scale population surveys. Interdependencies between psychological and structural characteristics are investigated and consequences for life satisfaction discussed. The results show evidence that individuals systematically vary in their orientation towards social comparison.

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Notes

  1. The SOEP pretest modules are representative samples of the German population. The respondents are randomly chosen and do not conflate with respondents of the core sample of the annual SOEP household panel study (see SOEP 2012a, b).

  2. Gibbons and Buuk recommend a shortend version of the INCOM scale by reducing it to the six items of the ability component. We believe, however, that the two dimensional character of SCO needs to be preserved, since comparison with abilities and opinions constitute two independent but equally important components of SCO (see Festinger 1954).

  3. SOEP is an annual household panel that has been conducted in Germany since 1984 (Wagner et al. 2007; Siedler et al. 2011).

  4. Please note that item 5 follows a reversed coding structure. A mean value of 3.5 therefore indicates that individuals tend to agree that they are not the type of people who often compare themselves with others.

  5. Note that the first-order model can be easily replaced by a second-order model whenever the first-order dimensions prove to be strongly interrelated (indicated by high correlations between the latent constructs).

  6. Items 3 and 4 showed an equal proportion of shared variance. For the shortened version of the INCOM scale, we selected item 4 to further broaden the scope of the dimension by including a more social ability component.

  7. The χ2 difference test compares the χ2 results of three models: (1) the more restrictive model that limits the factor loadings and the intercepts to be equal for both subgroups (scalar invariance), (2) the less restrictive model that forces only the factor loadings to be equal for both subgroups (metric invariance) and (3) the least restrictive model that forces only the factor structure to be equal for both subgroups (configural invariance) (see Brown 2006). If the χ2 difference test of (1) and (2) is not significant, we observe scalar invariance; if the χ2 difference test of (2) and (3) is not significant we observe metric invariance.

  8. Low education refers to those who have basic education (Hauptschule) or left school without a school-leaving certificate; high education refers to those who left school with a school-leaving certificate (Abitur or Fachhochschulreife) that allows them to attend the university. Those with medium education (Realschule) were not included in the analysis.

  9. Our results deviate from the results presented by Gibbons and Buunk (1999). The authors report a stronger tendency towards SCO for women. This deviation can be explained by differences in (a) the kind of measurement in use and (b) the type of sample. Whereas Gibbons and Buunk (1999) used a total score of SCO, we tested subgroup differences on both dimensions (ability and opinion) separately, since we believe that it is this two-dimensional structure of SCO that interests further research in social psychology. Further, Gibbons and Buunk (1999) base their results on the construct validity on two students’ samples. In contrast, our sample represents the German population and displays results for a more heterogeneous group.

  10. We favor a more relaxed categorization of comparison orientation “subgroups” (above/below the factor mean of ability and opinion comparisons) against a more restrictive one (at least one SD above/below the factor mean) to maintain the sample size. The conservative categorization limits our sample, which varies between 170 and 231 cases for each subgroup. However, choosing a looser categorization offers more analyzable cases, but limits the scope of interpretation to conclusions on general tendencies.

  11. The following variables are used: sex (male = 0; female = 1); age (metric); household financial situation (perceived financial situation of the household; respondents were asked to rate their household on a scale of 0, poor, to 10, wealthy); relative financial situation compared to other households in the neighborhood (difference between perceived financial situation of the household and perceived financial situation of the households in the neighborhood; respondents were asked to rate typical households in their neighborhoods on a scale of 0, poor, to 10, wealthy).

  12. A shortened version of the Rosenberg self-esteem scale is used (Rosenberg 1979). Respondents reported on a seven-point scale whether they agreed with following items: (a) “All in all I am satisfied with myself”; (b) “I am afraid there is not much I am proud of.”

  13. Please note again that item 5 follows a reversed coding structure. A mean value of 4.30 therefore indicates that individuals tend to agree that they are not the type of people who often compare themselves with others.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank Deborah Anne Bowen (DIW) and the anonymous reviewer for their kind support on this paper.

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Schneider, S.M., Schupp, J. Individual Differences in Social Comparison and its Consequences for Life Satisfaction: Introducing a Short Scale of the Iowa–Netherlands Comparison Orientation Measure. Soc Indic Res 115, 767–789 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-012-0227-1

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