Heather Smith has long been interested in how our comparisons to other people shape our experiences.
"You go to the gym, you notice the people to your left and your right and you think either 'I'm not doing so badly' or 'I'd better stop eating that extra cookie,'" said Smith, a veteran professor of social psychology at Sonoma State University.
So Smith set about trying to capture those comparisons in real time, at the moment when young women were in the process of sizing themselves up - negatively or favorably - in comparison to other women.
She and a research team that included colleague Matthew Paolucci Callahan and several student assistants enlisted 87 female students at SSU to record when and how they compared themselves during the day.
Comparisons could be anything from athleticism and grades to appearance, social status, lifestyle and wealth. It included not only people they knew, but also strangers on the street and celebrities.
They blazed a new research trail by enlisting cellphones to capture immediate reactions.
Subjects got three texts daily for a week and were told to stop and record their comparisons in a notebook.
"We were interested in how often people make comparisons, what they are about, how they feel about them," Smith said, "and are they upward toward people they perceive as better off, or downward, feeling better off than other people?"
Their findings were surprising: Those young women with the most diverse circles of friends were less likely to feel envious or inferior when comparing themselves.
Many studies have found that diverse friendships increase tolerance, empathy and civic engagement.
But Smith said this is the first study that shows how having close friends of different ethnicities, religions, ages, sexual orientations and genders can mitigate the bad feelings that arise when women compare themselves, particularly when it comes to looks.
It's not that the women with more diverse friends reported making fewer physical comparisons. They just seemed less bothered by them.
The research team also came up with another surprise. They assumed that women would experience all moments of comparison in the same way.
"Theoretically, all topics should elicit the same psychological process," said Smith, who in 2012 received SSU's Goldstein Award for Excellence in Research.
But comparing themselves to someone who got a better grade, for example, elicited less intense feelings of envy than looks.
Comparisons, said Smith, can be upward, where we feel someone else is better, or downward, where we feel superior.
"It was exciting to see that physical appearance comparisons are completely different than other kinds," said Smith, who has more than 32 published articles in the field of social psychology.
Her SSU research findings, "Looking Up and Seeing Green: Women's Everyday Experiences with Physical Appearance Comparisons," done in cooperation with Callahan, student Stephanie McKee, now a graduate student at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, and four other undergraduate student researchers, were recently published in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly.
Smith said much of her research centers around relative deprivation. She said she finds it intriguing when poor people can feel more contentment, relatively speaking, than wealthy people.
Another unexpected finding conflicts with other research and conventional wisdom that young women are always comparing themselves to celebrities.
The study found that 90 percent of the subjects' reported comparisons were not to media stars but to people sitting next to them.
Smith and Callahan, whose shoestring study was confined only to a small group of women at SSU, would like to find funding to broaden their sample. Callahan's expertise is in gender and sexuality.
"We're particularly hoping to have have men and straight women, because gay men also have body image issues," she said.
So what's the takeaway? Stephanie McKee said the problem is not women making comparisons, but the negative feelings that come with such comparisons.
Her suggestions to young women?
Focusing less on how their bodies look than on the quality of life that comes with health. When women compared themselves to top athletes, they felt more inspired than inferior or envious.
Cultivating a diverse group of close friends of different races, sexual orientations and ages.
(You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 521-5204.)
Features, The Press Democrat
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