How does social comparison influence eating disorders?

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As eating disorders increase in prevalence throughout the country, researchers and psychologists have taken an interest in better understanding what they are, how they manifest, and how best to treat them. They have run into problems in the past, however, due to fairly ineffective ways to collect accurate data.

This problem was greatly reduced with the introduction of ecological momentary assessment and experience sampling methods into their endeavors. EMA allows researchers to gain a much clearer image of what eating disorders look like day to day—even hour to hour.

This particular study uses experience sampling to understand how social comparison influences eating disorders.

Social comparison is a psychological phenomenon that essentially consists of comparing oneself to others. This could be anyone from a close friend or family member, to a complete stranger, or even a celebrity.

There are two basic types of comparison: upward and downward

  • An upward comparison means the person assesses another as “better” than him or herself.
    • For example, a girl might see a picture of a celebrity and assess that the celebrity is prettier than she is
  • downward comparison means the person assesses another as “worse” than him or herself.
    • For example, a boy on a soccer team may observe his teammates and assess that they are worse soccer players than he is
  • It can be with anyone, over any subject

This social comparison is thought to play a role in eating disorders. Though in the past researchers have assumed the social comparison strictly has to do with body-image, recent research suggests that this may be an incomplete picture.

In the present study, researchers again asked the question of how social comparison related to eating disorders, but this time, they expanded their definition of social comparison to include not only body image, but eating and exercise comparisons as well. They were not only interested in finding out how social comparison of body image, eating, and exercise contribute to eating disorder development, but they wanted to know what factors influence the comparisons. They wanted to really understand the nature of comparisons.

Methods

The study was done using ecological momentary assessment, or EMA. Participants of the study were sent questions on an electronic device 3x daily for two weeks. These prompts included questions about their eating behaviors, their comparison behaviors, etc.

For example, one such question sent to the participants’ electronic devices was

  • “Since the last signal, how many times have you compared your body, eating, and exercise to a same-sex peer?”
    • this assessed amount of comparison

Another question used was:

  • “Compared to the last peer who you compared your BODY with, did you think you looked… “ (with a rating of 1-5, with one being much worse, and 5 being much better); this assessed the direction of the comparison.

To better understand the nature of comparisons, questions asked participants to categorize their comparisons more specifically. For example, if a participant responded that they compared their body to another person’s body, they were asked to select all the categories that applied to the body comparison (weight; shape; muscularity/level of tone; other) The same categorization questions were asked for eating and exercise comparisons as well.

Participants were also asked to identify whom they were comparing themselves against: close friend/acquaintance/stranger)

They were also asked questions to assess their disordered eating thoughts, urges, and behaviors. Some examples of these questions are:

  • Did you attempt to restrict your eating to influence your shape or weight since the last time you were signaled? (i.e., restriction attempt)
  • Did you actually exercise to influence your shape or weight since the last time you were signaled?” (i.e., exercising)
  • Did you actually vomit since the last time you were signaled? (i.e., vomiting)
  • Did you actually binge eat since the last time you were signaled? (i.e., binge eating).

Results

After the completion of the experience sampling, data was analyzed. Results showed that the majority of comparisons that were made were upward comparisons—meaning that when people compared themselves to another person, they saw the person as “better” than themselves. This was true across body, eating, and exercise categories.

The categorical analysis revealed that body image comparisons were most often made concerning weight and shape. In addition, the majority of these upward comparisons were made with strangers. To put it more simply, participants’ most common comparisons in terms of body image were upward weight and shape comparisons with people they had never met

When participants made eating comparisons, they were mainly related to the healthiness and the amount of food consumed. Most of these comparisons were made with close friends.So, the eating comparisons people made were most often comparisons with their close friends about the healthiness and amount of the friend’s food.

Though it was true that people were making exercise comparisons, these comparisons were made on a wide variety of dimensions with a variety of relationships. Participants compared their exercise habits to the habits of acquaintances, strangers, and friends fairly equally. In addition, there was not necessarily one subcategory that was the main topic of comparison. Participants made a variety of comparisons about the dimension of the exercise.

Results revealed that upward comparisons—when people thought others were better than themselves—were correlated with negative behaviors. Participants who made more upward comparisons were also more likely to engage in eating disorder related thoughts, urges, and behaviors. Downward comparisons were also analyzed, but they did not seem to have an effect on behaviors one way or the other.

Conclusions

So, what do all of these results mean?

They have some interesting implications as we attempt to better understand eating disorders, how they develop, and how they are maintained.

  • Interventions should focus on body-image comparison, but they should also focus on eating and exercise comparisons, which were shown to contribute to disordered-eating behaviors and thoughts.
  • Though past interventions have focus on downward comparison models, the results of this study suggest that these efforts are most likely futile, as downward comparison did not positively influence behavior.
  • LASTLY, this study shows the feasibility of using ecological momentary assessment in eating-disorder related studies. This method was a unique way to make observations within the daily lives of participants.

Want to read more about this research? Check out this study!

Fitzsimmons‐Craft, E. E. (2017). Eating disorder‐related social comparison in college women’s everyday lives. International Journal of Eating Disorders.

If you’re interested in making your own experience sampling study, try the LifeData system!