The culture of social comparison
and Thomas Mussweiler
Social Cognition Center Cologne, University of Cologne, 50931 Cologne, Germany; and
Organizational Behavior Faculty, London Business School, London
NW1 4SA, United Kingdom
Edited by Susan T. Fiske, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, and approved August 15, 2018 (received for review December 11, 2017)
Social comparison is one of the most ubiquitous features of human
social life. This fundamental human tendency to look to others for
information about how to think, feel, and behave has provided us
with the ability to thrive in a highly complex and interconnected
modern social world. Despite its prominent role, however, a
detailed understanding of the cultural foundations of social com-
parison is lacking. The current research aims to fill this gap by
showing that two prominent cultural dimensions, tightness–loose-
ness and individualism–collectivism, uniquely explain variation in
social-comparison proclivity across individuals, situations, and cul-
tures. We first demonstrate the yet-undocumented link between
cultural tightness and comparison proclivity across individuals,
and further show that perceptions of ambient tightness and inter-
dependence are uniquely associated with stronger social-comparison
tendencies. Next, we show that these associations arise across social
settings and can be attributed to properties of the settings them-
selves, not solely to individual differences. Finally, we show that
both tight and collectivistic US states show a propensity to engage
in Google searches related to specific social-comparison emotions,
but that the tightness–comparison link arises from a unique psycho-
logical mechanism. Altogether, these findings show that social com-
parison—a fundamental aspect of human cognition—is linked to
cultural practices based both in prevalence and strength of social
norms as well as the tendency to construe the self in relation
How much time he gains who does not look to see what his neighbor
says or does or thinks, but only at what he does himself ... .
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
The need to work together in large social groups characterizes
the social life of humans to an extent that is unparalleled in
the animal kingdom (1). Compared with other species, humans
have developed elaborate systems of cooperation that go beyond
genes, geography, and time. This uniquely human inclination is
not only a prerequisite for efficient social and economic ex-
change (2), it may also constitute the default mode for human
social interaction (3). To successfully navigate this complex web
of social interactions, we need to assess our and others’social
standing, strengths, and weaknesses. Furthermore, to facilitate
the social coordination necessary for survival in groups, we must
know and agree on norms for appropriate behavior and work
together with others to maintain those norms.
These social processes require looking to others as comparison
standards—we use those around us as standards to evaluate
ourselves and gain information about how we should behave,
think, and feel. Such social comparisons are pervasive in social
life and are probably inevitable (4, 5). Indeed, knowing how one
measures up to others is a core human need (6), and how good
we feel about ourselves and how happy we are with our lives are
determined less by our absolute qualities and fortunes than by
our standing relative to others (5, 7, 8). Although some animals
do exhibit a basic level of comparative cognition (9, 10), it is
arguably the immense degree to which human beings process
complex social information relative to available, and sometimes
imagined, comparison standards that sets our species apart from
our animal cousins.
Humans’tendency to process information comparatively is
widespread and ubiquitous. Many decades of research in psy-
chology and related fields have demonstrated that comparison
processes are involved in perceptions of physical objects (11),
personal evaluations (12–15), language and problem solving
(16), categorization (17), stereotyping (18), attitudes (19), per-
son perception (20), decision making (21–23), and emotion (24,
25). Comparisons unfold so spontaneously and effortlessly (26)
that they are even carried out with standards that are irrelevant
to the task at hand (27, 28) and for stimuli that are presented
outside of conscious awareness (29, 30). Comparative thinking
can be observed in humans even as early as infanthood (31–33).
This evidence suggests that comparison is one of the most basic
building blocks of human cognition.
Despite the ubiquity of comparison, some findings suggest that
comparison can vary across individuals and situations. For one,
people appear to differ in their social-comparison orientation,
that is, in the frequency with which they seek, and the impor-
tance they attribute to, information about how others are doing
in a particular domain (8). Other findings offer insight into the
situational factors that influence social-comparison processes.
Most of this evidence follows up on the basic premise that in-
formation about others has the potential to satisfy basic human
needs, such as needs for certainty, affiliation, and esteem (13,
34–36), and is thus sought more, the more pronounced these
Humans have the unique ability to coordinate behavior, eco-
nomic exchange, political action, and social relationships across
immense distances and times. To keep this level of coordina-
tion running smoothly, we often look to others as comparison
standards for how to behave, think, and feel. A detailed un-
derstanding of the relation between social comparison and
broad patterns of social life is lacking, however. The current
research is a step in this direction—we show that social com-
parison is linked to cultural practices that promote strong
norms and punishment for deviance (tightness) and those that
promote relational self-construal (collectivism). These findings
advance our understanding of the origins of social comparison
and highlight the essential role of comparison for the devel-
opment of social life.
Author contributions: M.B. and T.M. designed research; M.B. performed research; M.B.
analyzed data; and M.B. and T.M. wrote the paper.
The authors declare no conflict of interest.
This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.
This open access article is distributed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-
NoDeriv atives L icense 4.0 ( CC BY-NC- ND).
To whom correspondence should be addressed. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article contains supporting information online at www.pnas.org/lookup/suppl/doi:10.
www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1721555115 PNAS Latest Articles
Can such individual and situational variation in comparison
be traced to broader and more distal factors? To answer this
question, we focus on two prominent perspectives in cultural
psychology, and first introduce the idea that comparison will be
particularly functional in tight cultures, or those that demand
adherence to social norms. Because tight cultures demand atten-
tion to norms and norm violators to coordinate social behavior,
and because social comparison provides valuable information
about how to behave, think, and feel, we expect tightness to be
associated with greater social-comparison proclivity. Alongside
this prediction, we also aim to further test the idea that social
comparison is more prominent in cultures that define the self in
relation to others (37). Because people in interdependent cultures
tend to construe the self in relation to others, it has been dem-
onstrated that people from these cultures also use available others
as comparison standards when seeking information about how to
behave, think, and feel (38). The following sections elaborate
further on tightness–looseness and self-construal and their hy-
pothesized connection to social comparison.
Tightness–Looseness and Social Comparison
Cultures can be distinguished by their degree of tightness–
looseness, which is defined as the strength of social norms and the
degree to which behavior is regulated and sanctioned (39–41). In
tight societies, norms are clear and harsh punishments are
enforced for those who deviate from them, and as a result,
knowing and following norms are particularly important in tight
cultures. In one study, participants from a tight culture (China)
exhibited increased neural activity when confronted with social
norm violations compared with those from a loose culture (United
States), indicating that individuals from tighter cultures have de-
veloped neural systems that are sensitive to detecting such viola-
tions (42). The awareness of norms, along with the detection of
norm violations, can be considered the glue that holds tight
Tightness–looseness can meaningfully differentiate US states
(43) and nations (44) and can also manifest in everyday situa-
tions, in what is known as situational strength (45). Strong (tight)
situations are those that have a high degree of behavioral re-
striction, and where behavior is highly monitored and restricted,
such as in the library or doctor’s office. Weak (loose) situations
are those that afford a wide range of behavioral variation, such as
at a dance club or one’s own backyard. A study of nations showed
that a significant amount of variability in the strength of imme-
diate situations, self-reported by individuals from those nations,
could be explained by cultural tightness between those nations
(44). In other words, tight cultures can also breed tight situations.
Because social comparison can be a particularly informative
and efficient way to gain information about social norms (26, 46),
we hypothesize that people in tight cultures will be prone to en-
gage in social-comparison activity; and there is suggestive evidence
in the literature hinting at this possibility. For instance, if pressures
to look to others for information about appropriate behavior are
high in tight settings, we would expect that individuals from tight
settings display a general tendency to rely on contextual in-
formation, as comparison requires comparing a target to available
contextual stimuli. Indeed, people in tight settings tend to con-
strue the self in relation to its context rather than as a differen-
tiated entity (47) and display field-dependent cognitive styles (48,
49), meaning that they process information relative to the context
in which that information is found.
Moreover, we would expect individuals in tight settings to pay
close attention to others, due to pressure to monitor and report
nonnormative behaviors. For instance, children in some tight
societies are expected to inform their superiors of individuals
who are deviating from societal rules (50) and individuals from
tight cultures appear to be more perceptive of norm violations
compared with those from loose cultures (42). These broad
systems of monitoring in tight cultures lead to a strong sense of
accountability to others—feeling that one’s actions are being
evaluated and judged (39–41, 47, 51), which in turn can prompt
individuals to closely monitor their own behavior (52). Self-
monitoring is highly dependent on comparing oneself to others,
so much so that individuals with high self-monitoring tendencies
are more likely to mimic the behavior of those around them (53).
Even though norms are often clear and known in tight settings,
people in those settings look to others to verify the norms at play,
check how others interpret them, and regulate their own behavior
In tight contexts characterized by high behavioral monitoring,
social comparison is highly functional as it allows individuals to
evaluate the appropriateness of their own behavior as well the
behavior of others. Doing so helps coordinate social behavior in
large groups, an outcome that is highly valued in tight cultures and
situations because these cultures experience many ecological and
societal threats, which increase the need for social coordination
(39–41). To survive in such environments, strong social norms and
punishment for deviance help to reduce uncertainty and chaos,
facilitate the management of scarce resources, allow for groups of
individuals to act cohesively in times of territorial threat, and so
on. Thus, in tight settings, comparison is particularly useful be-
cause it facilitates the social coordination needed for survival.
Self-Construal and Social Comparison
A second cultural variable that is likely to be intimately linked to
social-comparison tendencies is self-construal related to in-
dependence–interdependence. In fact, social comparison will
likely be more prominent in cultures that value interdependent
self-construals and fitting into the group (collectivistic) vs. in-
dependent self-construals and standing out as an individual (in-
dividualistic; ref. 37). Like tightness–looseness, self-construal
also varies across nations (54–56) and US states (57); moreover,
some situations can promote the interdependent self, such as a
family reunion, whereas others can promote the independent
self, such as a job interview.
It is clear that social comparison is built into the fabric of col-
lectivism because these comparisons are necessary for defining the
self relationally, creating strong ingroups and outgroups, and
assessing one’s status relative to others in the group, all of which
are characteristics of collectivist cultures. Indeed, research has
found that individuals from collectivist cultures, and individuals
primed with an interdependent self-construal, are more attentive
to contextual information (58), are more likely to assimilate to
others (59), and are more influenced by social comparisons when
prompted (60). However, these general patterns can be qualified
by other moderating variables. People from collectivistic cultures
seem to engage in more social comparison primarily when self-
improvement motives are strong (38), suggesting that collectivism
may be more strongly related to comparison under certain con-
ditions. There is other mixed evidence that individuals from col-
lectivistic cultures are more prone to social comparison. In one
study, personally relevant economic behaviors exhibited by par-
ticipants from individualist and collectivist countries were influ-
enced by social-comparison information to the same degree,
although the same social-comparison information differentially
affected participants’neural activity (61). Social comparison, then,
may have stronger effects depending on the level of analysis (brain
vs. behavior) and whether the outcome is relevant for one’sre-
lation to others (personal vs. collective action). Taken together,
these findings highlight that the link between interdependence/
collectivism and social comparison has yet to be firmly established
in the literature.
Perhaps the most obvious limitation of the current state of
the literature, however, is that the independent contributions of
self-construal and tightness–looseness on social-comparison pro-
clivity have yet to be tested in a single study. Although collectivism
www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1721555115 Baldwin and Mussweiler
and tightness are at least moderately correlated (43, 62–64), and
each is said to emerge from similar environmental threats and
pressures (39, 65, 66), it is likely that the mechanisms leading to
social comparison in these cultures are different, as each culture
developed different ways of reacting to those threats and pres-
sures. Whereas tight cultures developed formal systems of norm
adherence and punishment, collective cultures developed strong
bonds with similar others and a tendency to see clear boundaries
between ingroups and outgroups. Each of these unique cultural
practices are said to have protected individuals from exposure to,
and negative effects of, foreign disease, among other threats such
as extreme weather and foreign invasion. Thus, it should be the
case that tightness and collectivism have unique and independent
contributions to social comparison through different mediating
variables: attention to norms in the former and relational self-
construal in the latter.
Against this backdrop, the current research aims to (i) examine
the influence of tightness–looseness on comparison proclivity, (ii)
to further elucidate the link between self-construal and compari-
sonproclivity,and(iii) to assess the independent contribution of
both tightness–looseness and self-construal on comparison pro-
clivity. We tackle these goals with diverse methods and measures,
using both self-reports and big data from Google.
The Present Research
In a series of studies, we investigate the associations between
tightness–looseness, self-construal, and comparison proclivity at
the level of the person, context, and culture. In part 1, we focus
on the individual, using self-reports to establish the link between
tightness and social-comparison proclivity and to assess the unique
contributions of tightness and interdependence on social-comparison
proclivity. In part 2, we turn our focus to the situation and look at
whether tight and interdependent settings are those that yield
more social comparison. Part 3 focuses on culture and examines
social-comparison proclivity across states in the United States
using search data from Google. In part 3, we also identify a
psychological mechanism that underlies the tightness–comparison
link in an attempt to further distinguish the effects of tightness
Part 1: The Person
We first examined whether individual variation in perceptions of
ambient situational tightness predicts comparison activity in a
group of American participants. Approximately 400 adults par-
ticipating online indicated their perceptions of tightness in situ-
ations at home, at work, and in public (e.g., “In public places,
there are very clear expectations for how people should act”),
and then completed a measure of social-comparison orientation,
which assessed their agreement with statements about typical
comparison activities and behaviors (e.g., “I always like to know
what others in a similar situation would do”). Structural equation
modeling was used to examine the correlation between situa-
tional tightness and social-comparison orientation. As predicted,
participants who perceived their surroundings as tighter also
expressed stronger social-comparison proclivity (ϕ=0.347, SE =
0.057, z=5.758, P<0.001, 95% CI [0.217, 0.441]).
Next, we assessed participants’perceptions of ambient situa-
tional tightness as well as the strength of their own independent
and interdependent self-construals. Doing so allowed us to
compare the unique contribution of tightness and self-construal
on social-comparison proclivity. A new group of 400 American
adults participated online and were asked to consider “most
situations”in their daily life before responding to the same six-
item measure of tightness–looseness as before (e.g., “There are
very clear expectations for how people should act in most situ-
ations”). Participants also completed a measure of self-construal,
which consisted of two subscales assessing interdependent (e.g.,
“I feel my fate is intertwined with the fate of those around me”)
and independent (e.g., “I do my own thing, regardless of what
others think”) aspects of the self. Finally, they completed the
same measure of social-comparison orientation as before.
Structural equation modeling was used to examine the unique
contributions of tightness–looseness and self-construal to social-
comparison proclivity by regressing social comparison on tight-
ness, independence, and interdependence simultaneously. Tight-
ness was a significant predictor of stronger social-comparison
proclivity (b=0.271, SE =0.078, 95% CI [0.119, 0.424], β=0.232,
z=3.480, P=0.001). Interdependence was also associated with
higher social-comparison proclivity (b=0.489, SE =0.072, 95%
CI [0.348, 0.630], β=0.419, z=6.790, P<0.001). Independence
was associated with significantly lower social-comparison pro-
clivity (b=−0.205, SE =0.069, 95% CI [−0.340, −0.069],
β=−0.175, z=−2.966, P=0.003).
Overall, people who experience ambient tightness in their
daily lives, or who construe themselves in relation to others, are
also those who tend to compare themselves with others. By testing
each variable simultaneously, these findings offer evidence that
social comparison is a function of the unique influence of both
tightness and interdependence. For detailed methods and results,
see SI Appendix,Part 1. Next, we examine whether the links
among tightness, interdependence, and social comparison are
found across situations.
Part 2: The Context
In part 1, we focused on participants’experience of tightness and
self-construal in their own lives. Now we extend this analysis to
focus on social comparison, tightness, and interdependence as
properties of everyday settings. We predict that settings that are
perceived as tight and interdependent are also those that are
perceived as prompting social comparison. We tested this hy-
pothesis using three diverging but complementary approaches.
First, we presented ∼100 American adults with a list of 15 set-
tings, which were taken from prior research (e.g., job interview,
library). They were shown each set of 15 settings three separate
times and were asked to rank the settings on tightness, interde-
pendence, and comparison proclivity. For the tightness ranking,
they were told to “think about how much people adhere to social
norms, whether there are clear expectations for how to act, and
whether people would be punished for acting inappropriately”in
each situation. For the interdependence ranking, they were told to
“think about how much people are intertwined or connected to
each other, how much people tend to define themselves in relation
to others, and whether people’s group memberships mean more
than their individuality”in each setting. For the comparison rank-
ing, they were told to “thinkabout how much people look to others
for how to behave, compare what they are doing with what others
are doing, and pay a lot of attention to how others are doing
things”in each setting. The ranking tasks were presented in
Within-Individual Perceptions. We then assessed the relative con-
tributions of perceived tightness and interdependence on per-
ceived comparison by computing two partial rank correlations
for each participant: (i) the association between tightness and
comparison controlling for interdependence and (ii) the associ-
ation between interdependence and comparison controlling for
tightness. Finally, we obtained the average correlations across all
participants using a bootstrapping technique and examined the
CI to determine whether each correlation was significantly dif-
ferent from zero.
As expected, there was some overlap between participants’
tightness and interdependence rankings, such that situations that
were perceived as tight were also perceived as interdependent
(ρ=0.225, 95% CI [0.155, 0.294]). Despite this overlap, tight
situations were also seen as promoting social comparison after
controlling for interdependence (ρ
=0.182, 95% CI [0.112,
Baldwin and Mussweiler PNAS Latest Articles
0.253]), and interdependent situations were seen as promoting
social comparison after controlling for tightness (ρ
95% CI [0.232, 0.358]).
These correlations reveal the positive correspondence among
individual perceptions of tightness, interdependence, and com-
parison across settings. However, this analysis does not provide
evidence that participants agree on the rankings of each setting.
To know whether these associations are properties of the settings
themselves, we would need to test whether there is agreement
among the individual participants, that is, whether one person’s
tightness rankings match another person’s comparison rankings,
and so on.
Cross-Individual Perceptions. To test for these associations, we
calculated the same partial rank correlations as before, but for
every possible pair of participants in the dataset. For instance,
participant A’s tightness ranks were correlated with every other
participants’comparison ranks, and then this procedure was
repeated to obtain every partial rank correlation possible from
the data (5,151 total correlations). As before, we obtained the
average correlations of interest from this set of correlations
using a bootstrapping technique and examined the CI to de-
termine whether each correlation was significantly different
Average correlations between participants’tightness ranks
(ρ=0.320, 95% CI [0.310, 0.330]), interdependence ranks (ρ=
0.195, 95% CI [0.185, 0.204]), and comparison ranks (ρ=0.276,
95% CI [0.268, 0.285]) were all significantly different from zero.
This means that participants tended to agree on which settings
were tight, interdependent, and prompting comparison. More-
over, participants’tightness rankings correlated with other par-
ticipants’comparison rankings on average, after controlling for
=0.104, 95% CI [0.095, 0.112]). The
same pattern was found for interdependence after controlling for
=0.189, 95% CI [0.181, 0.197]).
Cross-Sample Perceptions. In a final test, we compared the rank-
ings of the sample of participants above (sample 1) to the av-
erage rankings from a completely new and independent sample
of 150 American participants (sample 2). The new participants
were randomly assigned to rank the settings on either tightness,
interdependence, or comparison, which resulted in ∼50 total
rankings for each variable. We then calculated partial rank cor-
relations between each participant’s individual ranks in sample
1 and the average ranks in sample 2, and then obtained the average
correlations across all sample 1 participants with bootstrapping.
We examined the CI to determine whether each correlation was
significantly different from zero. This procedure offers a rigorous
test that the links among tightness, interdependence, and social
comparison are properties of the settings themselves, and not
simply individual perceptions.
Consistent with the findings above, individual rankings from
sample 1 agreed with average rankings from sample 2: tightness,
ρ=0.533, 95% CI [0.463, 0.604]; interdependence, ρ=0.388,
95% CI [0.324, 0.451]; and comparison, ρ=0.446, 95% CI
[0.382, 0.509]. Because completely independent raters agree on
the ranks of these settings, it can be said that tightness, in-
terdependence, and comparison are likely to be actual properties
of the settings themselves.
Also supporting our predictions, individual rankings of tight-
ness were correlated with average rankings of comparison after
controlling for interdependence (ρ
=0.349, 95% CI [0.292,
0.407]). The same pattern emerged for interdependence after
controlling for tightness (ρ
=0.325, 95% CI [0.270, 0.381]).
For detailed methods and results, see SI Appendix,Part 2. In part
3, we zoom out further and examine the culture–comparison link
at the level of US states.
Part 3: Culture
In part 3, we operationalize social-comparison proclivity as the
search for social-comparison emotions on the internet. Social-
comparison emotions are those that arise primarily when com-
paring oneself to others (25). For instance, comparing oneself to
a colleague after her promotion could lead to feelings of jealousy
for some people, or inspiration in others. Comparing oneself to
the same colleague after her being fired may prompt feelings of
sympathy. Importantly, similar affective experiences may also
arise if one looks to others to learn about pertinent social norms.
For instance, one might look to others to gain information about
the norms at play in the workplace, such as how to dress. As a
result, some could feel jealousy toward those who can afford ex-
pensive suits and dresses, while others may be inspired to reach a
similar status. Others still may feel sympathy for those colleagues
who cannot afford to meet the expected norm. In all of these
examples, social comparison is the primary reason for feeling the
emotion, which sets them apart from other emotional experiences.
If individuals from tight and interdependent settings are more
likely to engage in social-comparison activity, as shown pre-
viously, they should also be more likely to experience social-
comparison emotions. To test this prediction, we examine the
frequency of comparison emotion searches on the internet across
US states. The internet is a massive source of information,
containing what could be around 50 billion web pages (67).
People use the internet to ask specific questions (68) and to
obtain social information, such as when seeking help or advice
from other internet users in forums (69) or on websites tailored
to specific social groups or goals (70). Thus, web search activity
can be useful for investigating individual psychological processes
and motives with real-world activity in a variety of contexts (71).
Here, we make use of search data from Google Correlate,
which is a database of tens of millions of search queries since the
year 2003 in the United States. This approach is highly reliable
and ecologically valid. No research to our knowledge has in-
vestigated how comparison proclivity manifests as real-world
information search on the internet. Thus, this research makes
use of a yet-undiscovered source of data to study this funda-
mental aspect of human cognition. Moreover, search frequency
data obtained from Google is composed of millions of search
queries, tapping into billions of potential web pages, by hundreds
of millions of individuals over several years. Thus, each indi-
vidual data point (i.e., a search frequency score for a single US
state) is highly reliable as the estimate is obtained from what is
(virtually) the entire population of interest. Whereas laboratory
research can only speculate about how comparison might man-
ifest in the real world, this approach assesses such behavior di-
rectly. See SI Appendix,Part 3, for details and validation of the
database for testing our culture-specific hypotheses.
State-Level Tightness, Looseness, and Comparison. To begin, we
computed a social-comparison emotion search index for each
state by averaging Google search frequencies for each of seven
social-comparison emotion words selected from a pilot study
(α=0.810; SI Appendix,Pilot Study 2). We also tested six addi-
tional variables as potential covariates—political orientation
(conservatism), geographic region (coded south vs. nonsouth),
residential mobility, percent urban population, and percent mi-
nority population (total Hispanic, Asian, and Black). Given that
each of these variables has been shown to correlated with
tightness or collectivism (43, 57), we considered that these var-
iables could potentially explain the association between culture
and comparison emotion searches.
First, we conducted an ordinary least-squares regression anal-
ysis to examine the independent contributions of tightness and
collectivism on comparison emotion searches without covariates.
Each variable contributed significantly to comparison emotion
www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1721555115 Baldwin and Mussweiler
=0.014, SE =0.006, 95% CI [0.005, 0.021], β=
=2.173, P=0.035; b
=0.032, SE =0.007, 95%
CI [0.020, 0.049], β=0.539, t
=4.693, P<0.001. Next, we
determined which subset of our predictor variables and covariates
best explained variation in comparison emotion searches across
states using a best subsets regression analysis, which searches for the
combination of predictors that maximizes model fit. The superior
model for explaining variation in social-comparison emotion
searches was one that included tightness–looseness, collectivism,
and political orientation as predictors. In this model, tightness and
collectivism remained significant and positive: b
SE =0.009, 95% CI [0.012, 0.037], β=0.483, t
=0.026, SE =0.007, 95% CI [0.014, 0.045], β=
=3.515, P=0.001. The effect of political orienta-
tion was negative, such that conservative states engaged in
fewer comparison emotion searches after controlling for cul-
=−0.022, SE =0.011, 95% CI [−0.044,
0.009], β=−0.322, t
=2.049, P=0.046). A US map depicting
the frequency of social-comparison emotion searches in each state
predicted by the final regression equation can be found in Fig. 1.
Testing a Mechanism. We hypothesize that comparison proclivity
related to tightness and collectivism results from different
mechanisms. With regard to collectivism, the mechanism is built
into the construct itself—that is, social comparison in collective
cultures is a direct function of the extent to which people define
themselves in relation to others. Self–other overlap is the driving
factor in the comparison–collectivism link. In contrast, the effect
of tightness on social comparison is likely mediated by a third
variable, namely, attention to norms. It is not the mere presence
of established social norms and formal punishment that prompts
social comparison in tight cultures, but rather how much people
in those cultures constantly monitor and attend to the norms at
play. Attention to norms should be apparent across states as a
function of tightness–looseness, and attention to norms should
account for the effect of tightness, but not collectivism, on com-
parison emotions searches.
We tested these hypotheses by assessing the extent to which
individuals from US states seek normative information on the
internet. Attention to norms can manifest linguistically in ex-
pressions of the “generic you”(72). People use generic-you
phrases when describing norms about behavior, for instance,
when explaining uses for a hammer (e.g., “You hit nails with it”),
or what to do at the library (e.g., “You should whisper when you
talk”). In these expressions, the “you”is interpreted as referring
to people in general, rather than to an individual addressee, and
describes general norms rather than individual preferences.
Generic-you phrases are especially useful for communicating
prescriptive norms—statements about how people should behave—
and use of the generic you emerges even in early childhood
On this basis, we predicted that internet searches for pre-
scriptive generic-you phrases would be more strongly associated
with tightness, compared with collectivism. We assessed atten-
tion to norms with a generic-you index made from two search
terms: “you should”and “should you”[r
These terms would capture searches such as “What should you
wear to a job interview?,”“How should you punish a child?,”
“Things you should do at the beach,”and so on. To demonstrate
that tightness predicts attention to norms specifically, we created
a first-person index with two terms: “I should”and “should I”
=0.673, P<0.001]. Although these terms could be used in
similar searches (e.g., “Things I should do at the beach”), use of
the first-person pronoun reflects a shift away from rule-based
norms and a focus on individual preferences.
As before, we first tested the unique contribution of tightness
and collectivism on generic-you searches without covariates.
Only tightness was a significant predictor: b
=0.047, SE =
0.009, 95% CI [0.033, 0.063], β=0.622, t
=0.000, SE =0.010, 95% CI [−0.018, 0.023], β=
=0.034, P=0.973. All variables were then submitted
to a best-subsets regression as before, and the superior model
was one that included only tightness–looseness as a predictor.
Neither cultural variable was a significant predictor of first-person
=0.013, SE =0.011, 95% CI [−0.004, 0.030],
=1.255, P=0.216; b
=−0.003, SE =0.012,
95% CI [−0.026, 0.021], β=−0.229, t
=−0.229, P=0.820. Thus,
we proceed to test the predicted mediation model with only
generic-you searches as the mediator.
We tested for the indirect effect of tightness on social-
comparison emotions through generic-you searches as the me-
diator and, consistent with the findings above, included collec-
tivism and political orientation as covariates on comparison
emotions. In the mediation model, tightness was a significant
predictor of generic-you searches (b=0.047, SE =0.0085, 95%
CI [0.030, 0.064], β=0.623, t
=5.514, P<0.001). As pre-
dicted, generic-you searches were associated with increased
comparison emotion searches (b=0.454, SE =0.075, 95% CI
[0.303, 0.604], β=0.633, t
=6.075, P<0.001). The indirect
effect through generic-you searches was significant (ab =0.021,
SE =0.007, 95% CI [0.008, 0.034], ab
=0.394, SE =
0.095, 95% CI [0.174, 0.548]).
Fig. 1. Tighter and more collectivist states make more searches for social-comparison emotions on Google. Color is proportional to the expected search
frequency from the regression equation (from low to high frequency of searches). Data from Google Correlate are adjusted for year-over-year growth, and
state-by-state variation in internet usage.
Baldwin and Mussweiler PNAS Latest Articles
After accounting for the effects of the generic-you mediator,
the direct effect of tightness became nonsignificant (b=0.008,
SE =0.007, 95% CI [−0.007, 0.022], β=0.144, t
0.279). However, even after controlling for the generic-you me-
diator, the direct effect of collectivism remained significant and
positive (b=0.024, SE =0.006, 95% CI [0.132, 0.036], β=0.404,
=4.383, P<0.001). Thus, a focus on social norms fully
accounted for the effect of tightness, but not the effect of col-
lectivism, on social-comparison emotions across states. The full
path model can be found in Fig. 2. Detailed methods and results
can be found in SI Appendix,Part 3.
Comparison is a basic building block of human cognition and a
fundamental aspect of human social life. It facilitates thinking in
domains as diverse as person perception (18), emotion (24, 25),
attitudes (19), and problem solving (16). Building on many de-
cades of research focused on the processes and consequences of
comparative thinking, the current research takes a look at the
situational and cultural factors that give rise to comparison in
daily life. Using self-report measures and real-world data from
internet searches, we have demonstrated that social-comparison
proclivity has a cultural basis in both cultural tightness–looseness
and self-construal. Perceptions of tightness and perceptions of
interdependence each contributed uniquely to social-comparison
proclivity in self-reports, both across individuals and situations.
These links were found at the broad cultural level as well—tight
and collective states in the United States show a propensity to
search for social-comparison emotions on the internet. Sup-
porting the notion that the tightness–comparison link is due to
attention to norms and norm violations, we found that internet
searches for prescriptive generic-you phrases were higher in tight
states, which in turn predicted higher comparison emotion
search activity in those states. This pattern of mediation was not
found for collectivism.
Taken together, these studies can shed light on the contextual
and individual difference variables that modulate social com-
parison by offering a cultural psychological perspective that
posits the mutually constitutive nature of cultures and selves
(74). According to this perspective, the self is the center of ex-
perience, which becomes tuned to the immediate environment
and as a result incorporates culturally specific rules that affect a
variety of psychological processes. This perspective can speak to
why social-comparison proclivity is positively associated with
variables such as self-awareness, uncertainty, and threat sensi-
tivity (e.g., neuroticism; ref. 8). These features of the self and
situation may activate the tendency to “tune”to the environment—
to take in information that may provide valuable information
about the self, about others, about the situation, and about rel-
evant threats. This tuning inevitably involves looking to others as
As our studies show, however, broad cultural practices also
influence how this social comparison plays out—tightness and
interdependence each contribute uniquely to comparison, and as
we show in part 3, the process likely occurs through different
mechanisms. Put simply, there are many reasons why individuals
would be motivated to seek information via social comparison,
and our studies reveal that cultural practices modulate how those
comparisons play out and the kind of information people seek.
These individual processes continue to reinforce the specific
cultural practices for which they were enacted (attention to
norms, relational self-construal), which feed into the way the
broad culture develops, which continue to modulate individual
psychologies, and so on.
Our studies also add to the growing body of research on the
antecedents and consequences of cultural tightness–looseness.
Specifically, our data suggest a cognitive mechanism that might
mediate the links between broad environmental factors and
intraindividual psychologies described by the tightness–looseness
approach. For instance, cultural tightness is associated with ex-
posure to environmental threat, which may produce a need for
hierarchy, rigid morality, conformity, and social coordination
(43, 65, 66). At the individual level, tightness is hypothesized to
be associated with a high degree of felt accountability among
individuals, which manifests as greater accessibility of group
norms, prevention-focused self-regulation, and high regulatory
strength. Social-comparison processes could well be the link
between these ecological threats, broad social practices, and in-
dividual psychological outcomes that define tight cultures. If
true, the implication is that comparative thinking is not only a
building block of cognition but also a building block of broad
cultural practices and their psychological outcomes.
Similar hypotheses could be derived about collectivism. Col-
lectivism is also higher in regions with a history of pathogen
prevalence (65), which may contribute to the extent to which
collectivistic cultures draw sharp distinctions between ingroups
and outgroups (41). Again, social comparison could plausibly
link these environmental threats to cultural practices that de-
mand interdependent self-construals and attention to ingroup
and outgroup differences. The link between individualism–
collectivism and comparison may not be as simple, however.
Individualism–collectivism can be expanded from one di-
mension to the intersection of two dimensions—whether people
are focused on equality or hierarchy (horizontal vs. vertical) and
whether the self is independent or interdependent (individualism
vs. collectivism; ref. 75). Horizontal individualism is focused on
Generi c-Yo uTightness-Looseness = . 622, P < .001
= -.274, P = .011
= .414, P< .001
= .783, P < .001
= -.020, P = .864
= .542, P < .001
= .204, P = .002
Fig. 2. Path model showing that tight states make more generic-you searches on Google, which, in turn, predicts higher comparison emotion searches.
Collectivism and political orientation (conservatism) were included as predictors and are depicted in gray. After accounting for the generic-you mediator,
tightness is no longer a significant predictor of comparison emotion searches. The solid lines highlight significant paths, and the dashed lines highlight
www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1721555115 Baldwin and Mussweiler
distinguishing the self from others but keeping status equal
across individuals, whereas vertical individualism stresses both
distinctiveness and status. Horizontal collectivism is about pro-
moting harmony and cohesion within the group, whereas vertical
collectivism is focused on submission and position in the hier-
archy, such as when children submit to parents or when sacri-
ficing one’s own pleasure for the sake of the group.
It seems plausible, then, that people from individualistic cul-
tures are also prone to comparisons, but specifically those that
focus on differences between the self and others; these com-
parisons would be particularly beneficial for vertical individual-
ists who value distinctiveness and status. In contrast, people from
collectivistic cultures may favor both comparisons: a focus on
similarities between the self and others for the purpose of group
harmony (horizontal), and a focus on differences between the
self and someone of relatively lower or higher status to assess the
hierarchy (vertical) (37).
Considering these possibilities, it seems difficult to imagine
how these cultural practices could emerge and be sustained in
the absence of individuals engaging in a high degree of social
comparison in daily situations. Such speculations could be tested
in future research by observing trends in tightness and compar-
ison activity over time, paying close attention to cross-lag causal
effects of each variable. Future research could also assess social-
comparison activities before and after events that would be
expected to promote tightness or collectivism, such as terror
threats, extreme weather, or disease outbreaks. In addition, fu-
ture research could examine broader seasonal trends in com-
parison activity over time. For instance, comparison activity may
be higher in seasons that promote tightness or collectivism, such
as the start of “flu season,”for months in which school is in
session, during national elections, and so on.
This research represents a methodological innovation for the
social and behavioral sciences and highlights the fruitfulness of
using ecologically valid internet search data for conducting re-
search in this field. Given that data from Google are highly
representative of the population of interest (in our case, indi-
viduals living in the United States), our findings are generaliz-
able. Furthermore, individuals conducting searches on the
internet are unlikely to predict how their search activity could be
used for any specific hypothesis, and thus research with internet
search data are absent of demand effects. Broadly speaking, this
research makes clear how the internet can be considered an ex-
tension of the mind, as it is a tool that facilitates cognition (76).
This means that internet search data can be fruitfully explored to
examine basic social, behavioral, and psychological processes in
and across cultures.
All studies were covered under Institutional Review Board
approval from the Social Cognition Center Cologne, and par-
ticipants provided consent by clicking a box on the first page of
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