Talk Show Fascination
running head: talk show fascination
Can social comparison theory explain fascination with TV talk shows?
Cynthia M. Frisby, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Advertising Department
Missouri School of Journalism
76F Gannett Hall
Columbia, MO 65211-1200
Office: (573) 882-6232
FAX: (573) 882-4823
E-mail: [log in to unmask]
A manuscript prepared for and submitted to the Mass Communication and Society
division of AEJMC for possible presentation at the 1998 convention
Talk Show Fascination
Mass media commentaries suggest that television talk shows are dramatically
increasing and have become quite popular with American viewers. Despite the
public's interest in TV talk shows, mass media researchers have paid little
attention to assessing the short-term and long-term effects of watching these
programs. It is hypothesized that self-enhancement or feeling better about
oneself and one's life may be a reason people watch what some consider to be
trashy, morbid TV programs. The article defines the social comparison process
and provides ideas and research techniques for future research that could be
used to test the idea that consumers might use certain media to engage in social
comparisons with media images.
Talk Show Fascination
Can Social Comparison Theory Explain Fascination With
TV Talk Shows?
Perhaps more than any other brand of media message that we receive,
television talk programs deliberately use such gross manipulation in their
attempt to entertain and supposedly "inform" us. While they employ a
game-like atmosphere, the information they provide about "real-life,"
that it's just a "reflection" of reality is worse than useless. It's
dangerous_for it puts us in the habit of 'entertaining sin'...using the
errors and deviance of others for our entertainment and tolerating such
as a normal part of life. (Abt & Mustazza, 1997, p. 83)
What explains the success of TV talk shows and other media that focus on
the misfortunes of others (i.e., tragic news stories)? Has politics become
entertainment and entertainment a reality? This paper hopes to offer an
explanation: Consumers like and are attracted to morbid news stories and other
"tragic" media messages because these messages provide information that helps
them feel better about themselves, particularly when afforded with opportunities
to compare themselves against the adversities and misfortunes of others.
Remarkably, very little academic attention has been devoted to the messages
contained in talk show programming or the effects of the messages on viewers'
self-concepts, perceptions of reality, attitudes, and opinions. Much of the
work on TV talk shows has focused on analyzing the topics and issues. Studies,
for example, have revealed that a majority of the TV talk show topics focus on
the misfortunes or problems of others: "Skinheads, racists, misogynists,
youngsters who hate school and society, parents who hate their children,
self-mutilators, cheating lovers, sadomasochistic lovers, incest perpetrators
and 'survivors,' transsexuals and bisexuals, nymphomaniacs, dysfunctional
families... strippers, people with gross eating disorders, cult members,
murders" and the list goes on (Abt & Mustazza, 1997, p. 25).
Other research conducted on the content and focus of many of the topics
discussed on TV talk shows revealed that, more often than not, the shows focus
human misery and tragedies (Zoglin, 1991). Current research conducted by Abt
and Mustazza (1997) revealed that approximately 78% of the topics on TV talk
shows are about sex, behavioral disturbances, and families out of control.
Zoglin (1991), a reporter for Time, also argues that the topics on television
talk shows are "surrealistic blurs of human misery, sideshow voyeurism, and
sheer lunacy" (p. 79).
Critics contend that these type of topics merely create and exacerbate
conflict. Take, for example, what happened on Jenny Jones in 1995 (Abt &
Mustazza, 1997; Carter, 1996). In March of 1995, a young man appeared as a
guest on a show about secret admirers. The admiree, knowing that the show was
about secret admirers, expected his admirer to be female, but was surprised and
embarrassed to discover that his admirer was a long-time male friend. The
friend admitted his secret fantasy as well; tying the admiree up and spraying
whipped cream and champagne all over his body. The shocked, humiliated, and
embarrassed admiree vehemently declared on the show that he was "100%
heterosexual." A few weeks later, the admiree bought a 12-gauge shotgun and
killed the admirer. He told police that the reason he committed the murder was
simply because he was embarrassed and humiliated by his appearance on the
In addition to encouraging violence and aggression, critics feel that
television talk shows distort reality. Talk shows do not reflect the real world
or the true context of American life, Bernstein argues (1994). This critic
believes that television talk shows merely provide viewers with a type of
entertainment designed to boost ratings and viewership. Take for example,
topics such as "moms having affairs with their children's friends,"
"cross-dressing after dark," "skinheads," and "incest." These topics, critics
believe, may not be newsworthy or may not appear to provide information because
they are "devoted to hyping the hype" (Bernstein, 1994). Others critics agree
with comments made by Bernstein and Lieberman and argue that the emotionally
laden topics that seem to permeate television talk shows are nothing but pure
garbage, "trash TV," or "tabloid sleaze" (Bander, 1996; Bernstein, 1994;
Lieberman, 1995; Thomas, 1997).
TV Talk Shows: America's Entertainment!
TV talk shows are dominating the airwaves of daytime television and have
become, according to Abt and Mustazza (1997), "America's entertainment."
Viewers, research suggests, have become fascinated with and dedicated to viewing
their favorite TV talk show (Nielsen Media Research, 1997). A case in point:
Ricki Lake recently received the "Best Talk Show" award at the United Kingdom
National Television Awards. "Ricki Lake's syndicated talk show has made her the
Oprah of Generation X" (Mr. Showbiz, Star Bios, Internet Homepage). The 3.6 %
audience rating for the Ricki Lake show means that this program reaches an
estimated audience of 3 million people (Abt & Mustazza, 1997; Gamson, 1995).
According to the Ricki Lake home page, the show reflects the evolving
tastes of its young adult audience and promises to deliver original, lively talk
for its viewers. The Ricki Lake show also "lets us [viewers] share other
people's relationship issues in a cutting-edge daytime forum designed to keep
action hot and audience members involved" (Ricki Lake Internet Home Page). It
is then no wonder why this show remains highly ranked and continues to attract a
large number of faithful viewers among its target audience of 18- to 34-year-old
women. "To these younger people, it [the show] makes a couple of deliciously
tempting promises: that Ricki will let them 'eavesdrop on other people's traumas
and dramas in a cutting edge daytime forum designed to keep action hot and
audience members involved,' and that Ricki's 'trademark compassion, intellect,
and irresistible charm creates an atmosphere where guests and audience members
feel comfortable letting it all hang out with absolute candor and some
surprising results'" (Abt & Mustazza, 1991, p. 75).
Many of the television talk shows, however, cannot compare with the ratings
of the Oprah Winfrey show. Winfrey's syndicated talk show stayed in the number
one position for approximately ten years and is described as being in a class
all by itself (Abt & Mustazza, 1997; Nielsen Media Research, 1997). Recently,
Winfrey announced that she was no longer going to produce sensationalized or
negative shows (e.g., racism, welfare reform, etc.). "We started doing
confrontational TV.... I believe it was important to introduce these issues and
face the truth of who we were...Instead, TV got stuck thriving on them, and for
the worst possible reasons--exploitation, voyeurism, and entertainment" (quote
by Oprah Winfrey as cited in Abt & Mustazza, 1997, p. 1). After years of
focusing on negative topics, Oprah has completely overhauled her program by
employing a celebrity-interview format. Oprah is not the only talk show to
change formats. In November 1995, Geraldo Rivera decided to change the format
of his talk show and turned toward a more entertaining, "nontrashy" show (Abt &
According to some media analysts, TV talk shows such as Oprah and Geraldo,
which have softened the content of their shows, are now considered to be the
"big losers" in reaching younger audiences (Abt & Mustazza, 1997; Collins,
1998). According to some media analysts, nice topics do not and will not draw
ratings (Abt & Mustazza, 1997; Carter, 1996). And, it should be noted that,
since changing its format, Winfrey's popular talk show has experienced a slight
decline in audience ratings, going from approximately 10 to approximately 7% of
the viewing audience. With respect to viewers between the ages of 16 and 34,
the most popular talk shows are Ricki Lake, Jenny Jones, and Jerry Springer.
These three shows tend to focus on topics that encourage extreme emotional
Moreover, recent audience ratings show that the Jerry Springer Show has now
become the first talk show to take over Oprah's number one spot (Collins, 1998).
In fact, according to Collins (1998), the rise in the ratings, popularity, and
success of the Jerry Springer Show is remarkable. The viewing audience enjoys
this particular talk show so much that a pre-recorded videotape was created that
is full of back-to-back fistfights, violence, anger, and bad language. The talk
show segments are so intense that they had to be censured from live broadcast.
Interestingly, the video has sold some hundreds of thousands of copies (Collins,
1998). The rise in ratings of his TV talk show and now the sale of the censored
videotapes causes some people to ask themselves, "why are people watching this
type of media programming?"
Some regular viewers of TV talk shows believe that TV talk shows provide
valuable information by keeping them informed and up-to-date on societal events
(Frisby & Weigold, 1994). Other viewers, however, believe that the greatest
benefit of watching TV talk shows rests in the fact that the shows are very
entertaining. Hence, some regular viewers would argue that these programs are
popular because the content elicits an "exciting" affective response. Several
theories in mass media use may be used to explain media choice and preference.
The next section will discuss mass media theories that have been used to
explain the media use and exposure effects. The literature review will begin
with a discussion of three theories of media use, uses and gratifications,
entertainment, and affective regulation, and will end with a discussion of an
alternative theoretical framework that might be used to guide future research on
TV talk shows and other mass media.
A Brief Review of Mass Communication Theories: Can they explain fascination with
TV talk shows?
Uses and Gratifications of Media Use
Uses and gratifications theorists focus on how media satisfy social and
individual needs. Media are considered a source of gratification, and audience
members are viewed as active seekers and communicators (Rubin, 1994). The uses
and gratifications approach shifts the focus from media effects (e.g., Does the
media "cause" things to happen in society?) to examining how people use the
media (e.g., What people do with media or the purposes for which individuals use
media). According to Rubin (1994), before examining media effects or how media
impact human behavior, researchers need to determine how individuals use the
media and attain a firm understanding of audience motivations and behavior.
Uses and gratifications paradigm has three objectives: "(1) to explain how
people use media to gratify their needs, (2) to understand motives for media
consumption, and (3) to identify functions or consequences that follow from
needs, motives and behavior" (Rubin, 1994, p. 419).
Uses and gratifications is based on the following assumptions (Rubin,
1. Individuals use media to satisfy specific needs. Media use is goal directed.
2. Individuals select and actively pursue the media channels and content to
fulfill specific needs.
3. Individuals are aware of the needs they anticipate meeting from media and can
state their needs and expectations and their specific reasons for using
Five Categories of Needs
To explain motives for media use, Katz, Gurevitich, and Haas (1973)
identified five distinct and theoretically meaningful categories of audience
needs. The five categories of needs related to media use are a) cognitive, b)
affective, c) personal integrative, d) social integrative, and e) escapist
needs. Cognitive needs relate to using media for obtaining information,
knowledge and understanding of the world. Affective needs relate to emotional
experiences and the pursuit by an individual to satisfy entertainment or
pleasure needs. Personal integrative needs relate to the desire of an
individual to gain confidence, stability, or esteem. Social integrative needs
relate to an individual's desire for affiliation with family and friends, and
escapist needs relate to the individual's desire for tension release or
Research on Media Use and Audience Needs
Researchers and uses and gratifications theorists frequently refer to at
least six gratifications of media use; information (also known as surveillance/
or knowledge), escape, passing time, entertainment, social viewing/status
enhancement, and relaxation gratifications (Rubin, 1981). Although the variable
names for these gratifications may change from study to study, research in mass
media uses and gratifications of mass media use continues to confirm that these
six gratifications hold up across situations (Conway & Rubin, 1991; Rubin, 1981;
According to Katz et al., (1973), individuals obtain different
gratifications from different media. Learning and knowing oneself was best
served, they found, by print media. Newspapers, the researchers suggest, satisfy
an individual's needs for status enhancement or "self-confidence." On the other
hand, watching television was determined to be most useful for "killing time"
and maintaining friendships and family solidarity (Katz et al., 1973).
Research on Gratifications of Television Talk Shows.
In a study on gratifications of television talk shows, Frisby and Weigold
(1994) found five gratifications obtained from viewing television talk shows.
Subjects were asked to watch one of three-television talks show at any time
during an ordinary week. Immediately after watching the show, participants
answered questions about their talk show viewing motives. They were also asked
to speculate why, in their opinion, "other people" watch television talk shows.
According to the data, viewers claim to watch TV talk shows in order to
feel good, or forget about problems (affect management), because the shows are
on at home (passive exposure), to learn about the issues of the day or learn
about the world (surveillance), for something to do (pass time), and because
friends watch them (social viewing). In addition, analysis revealed that
regular viewers were more likely than nonviewers to state that learning about
issues was a major gratification obtained from viewing television talk shows.
Limitations of Uses and Gratifications
Research employing a uses and gratifications theoretical perspective means
asking individuals to subjectively report on and identify their particular
experiences. The uses and gratifications approach to media use assumes that
people are aware of the needs they anticipate from media and, if asked, can
promptly and specifically state reasons for using certain media. The technique
most often used to assess the specifics of media use and motives for media use
is the self-report questionnaire or survey (Zillman & Bryant, 1986).
Many of the uses and gratifications studies rely on questionnaires or
surveys (see for example, Conway & Rubin, 1991; Katz, Gurevitch, & Haas, 1973;
Rubin, 1981). One explanation for such heavy reliance on these specific
measurement instruments may be the fact that surveys, are quick and easy and
yield a great of information that may be relevant to the relationship among
psychological or emotional needs, and characteristic purposes and motives for
using certain media.
Data obtained in many of the studies on media use and gratifications are
generally analyzed using factor analyses or tables. Most times, the evidence
collected in the studies provides support for the six well-known gratification
categories (i.e., information, entertainment, escape, social, passing time and
relaxation). This categorization of variables, some argue, may be a fundamental
weakness of the uses and gratifications approach because the conclusions
generally restate published findings, and, typically provide broad explanations
for media use. Very little research has been identified that relates specific
motives to specific audience satisfactions and needs. The studies, therefore,
have been criticized for being largely exploratory and nontheoretical in nature
(Zillman & Bryant, 1986).
One problem with using questionnaires or surveys on media use is that the
data are often inconclusive (Zillman & Bryant, 1986). Respondents are
oftentimes responding to the researcher's questions and are not asked open-ended
questions or questions that will let them say what they want to say. Moreover,
some critics argue that respondents may be unaware of their motives, or maybe
even unwilling to disclose their "true motives."
Are media audiences so reflective that they can provide a rational
explanation for their media use? Would a survey yield the same six
gratifications if respondents were asked questions which extended beyond the six
gratifications mentioned above? For example, suppose people were asked to
respond to a question like, "I watch Ricki Lake because the guests are usually
worse off than me and seeing that makes me feel better." Or, "I watch Jenny
Jones because I compare myself with the guests, and suddenly realize I am in a
much better situation." How would people respond? How likely is a response
like, "I sure do and boy do I feel great when I see the guests make fools of
themselves?" Or are individuals likely to be hesitant, embarrassed, and/or
reluctant to admit such a motive? Would a "uses and gratifications" question
such as this prompt a socially desirable response (i.e., strongly disagree or
even "no way").
Consumers may be unaware of reasons why and may be unable to articulate why
certain media contents are chosen over other forms. And, with regard to
explaining television consumption, particularly motives for consuming "bad" or
morbid television programs, the uses and gratifications theoretical approach may
not tap into the actual motives for media use.
According to Zillman and Bryant (1986), entertainment can be defined as
"any activity designed to delight and, to a smaller degree, enlighten through
the exhibition of the fortunes or misfortunes of others, but also through the
display of special skills by others and/or self" (p. 303). With this
definition of entertainment in mind, it seems clear that consumers may fulfill
specific needs for entertainment comedies, tragedies, and drama programs
(Zillman & Bryant, 19986).
Is the TV talk show popular among viewers because the program content
produces an "exciting" affective response? And, who benefits more from exposure
to entertaining programs like television talk shows? Research suggests that
reactions to entertaining programs can be positive or negative, depending on an
individual's idiosyncratic needs (Zillman & Bryant, 1986; Zuckerman, 1979).
Under this assumption, it is possible to speculate that certain viewers watch TV
talk shows to regulate affect. "Thus, for understimulated, bored persons,
exposure to certain exciting television programs can be seen as having the
benefit of returning them [viewers] to a hedonically superior, and, hence,
desirable state" (Zillman & Bryant, 1986, p. 307).
"It [affective regulation] is, in fact, the effect of entertainment consumption.
It is the primary effect that is sought out and pursued for the benefits that it
entails---benefits such as being distracted from acute grievances, having
boredom removed, being cheered up, being given great excitement, being helped to
calm down, or being fed pacifying messages." Zillman and Bryant, 1986, p. 320.
Bryant and Zillman (1984) provide another behavioral approach that might
clearly explain why people use media: affective regulation. Media use from this
perspective is selective and deliberate. Moreover, the affective regulation
paradigm does not require respondents to provide explicit reasons or
comparisons of why or how they made program choices (Zillman & Bryant, 1986).
Program choice and exposure to certain programs is conducted "mindlessly" and
spontaneously. "It can be projected that these choices are situational
variables and serve ends which respondents need not be and probably are not
aware of" (Zillman & Bryant, 1986, p. 306).
Research on Affective Regulation and Media Use
Research on media use for affective regulation suggests that people select
television in order to regulate their affective states. Viewers seek out
specific media for very specific benefits, such as being distracted from serious
problems and/or grievances, having boredom removed, and being cheered up or
calmed down. These benefits may be comparable to the "escape" motive
associated with uses and gratifications (Zillman & Bryant, 1986)
In a study related to using media to regulate affect, Potts and Sanchez
(1994) found that television viewing does serve as a means of escape and to
regulate or enhance mood. Depressed viewers tended to engage in "strategic"
television viewing. The researchers argue that mood guides strategic television
viewing by changing a negative mood, or maintaining a positive one (Potts &
Dittmar (1994) also found strong correlations between depression and
gratifications obtained from viewing television. In this study, subjects were
screened by a clinical interview and were selected for participation based on
their responses during the interview and to the MMPI. Those subjects who were
identified as depressed and met criteria for depressive disorders were invited
to participate in the study. Non-depressed subjects were identified also by
responses to the MMPI and clinical interview.
Results showed that among male and female college students, depressed women
were more likely than any other group to watch more soap operas and depressed
men were more likely to watch situation comedies. Based on the data, Dittmar
concluded that television may offer a certain "coping style" that offers
depressives a method of "vicarious living." Depressed individuals may use
characters on television to "provide emotional gratification while at the same
time avoiding the risks associated with real interpersonal relationships"
(Dittmar, 1994, p. 325).
Affective Regulation and Viewing TV Talk Shows
To what degree does affective regulation determine or affect people's
motives for viewing talk shows? To answer this question, Frisby and Weigold
(1994) examined correlations between motives for talk show viewing and feelings
experienced while watching the show. The sample comprised 89 people who viewed
TV talk shows at least once a week. The participants received instructions to
watch (in their own home or dorm) one episode of Oprah, Donahue, or Geraldo.
Prior to viewing, subjects completed Rosenberg's self-esteem scale and received
a booklet containing instructions and all other dependent measures. Verbal and
written instructions emphasized that while viewing the program, subjects were to
record all thoughts in spaces provided in the booklet. Additionally, they
indicated any feelings experienced during each thought on an accompanying set of
Data revealed that regular talk show viewers (i.e., people who indicated
watching TV talk shows more than twice a week) experienced significantly more
positive, happy thoughts while viewing talks shows. Since much of the content
on a TV talk show involves tragic events or trashy topics, one explanation for
the increase in positive thoughts among regular viewers could be that the guests
who are observed suffering misfortunes or problems might be providing viewers
with an opportunity to say, "gee, I thought I had it bad," and this thought
causes them to rejoice or ultimately feel more optimistic (a positive feeling)
about their own personal circumstances.
AN ALTERNATIVE THEORETICAL PERSPECTIVE TO EXPLAIN MEDIA USE
Social Comparison Theory: Making inferences about the self and others
The previous theoretical approaches in mass communications discussed in
this paperDuses and gratifications, entertainment theory, and affective
regulationDshare certain basic assumptions and constructs, but are not unified
theories that might be used to explain why people consumer media and predict the
effects of media consumption on social behavior. In contrast, the paper will
now turn to a particular theory of social psychology, social comparison theory.
Compared to the other mass communication theories, social comparison theory is
narrower in its domain of interest because it specifically focuses on social
inferences that relate the self to others (Robertson & Kassarjian, 1991).
Exposure to tragic events and/or bad news almost invites social comparison
among viewers (Zillman & Bryant, 1986). Viewers may be encouraged to compare
and contrast their own situation with the situations of the "suffering parties
they witness, and that this contrasting eventually produces a form of
satisfaction" (Zillman & Bryant, 1986, p. 317). Affect is enhanced because
viewers, seeing the misfortune of others, become appreciative of their life
circumstances and situations. According to Festinger's (1954) social
comparison theory, when people are uncertain about their abilities and opinions,
they evaluate themselves by making comparisons with similar others. People
compare themselves with others for a variety of reasons: to determine relative
standing on an issue or related ability, to emulate behaviors, to determine
norms, to lift spirits or feel better about life and personal situations, to
evaluate emotions, personality, and self-worth (Suls & Wills, 1991; Taylor &
The remaining part of this paper explores the notion that talk shows and
other media may be popular with individuals because of the affective
consequences that follow from audience social comparisons. Social comparison
theory, it is believed, may help to explain and uncover an important motive for
watching television talk shows, a motive that people may be unable or reluctant
to express openly.
What is Social Comparison?
Social comparison is defined as "the process of thinking about information
about one or more people in relation to the self" (Wood, 1996, p. 520). Social
comparison does not mean that the individual has to give careful, elaborate,
conscious thought about the comparison, but it implies that there has to be, to
some degree, an attempt to identify or look for similarities or differences
between the other and self on some particular dimension (Wood, 1996). Some
theorists might argue that for a comparison to be considered a comparison, the
individual must be aware of the comparison and come into direct contact with the
other person (Wood, 1996). However, as Wood (1996) points out, social
comparisons do not require conscious or direct personal contact because "even
fictional characters and stereotypes may represent meaningful standards of
comparison" (p. 522).
Social Comparisons with Images in the Mass Media
From a mass communication perspective, social comparison theory would prove
extremely useful in developing theory focused on information processing and the
effects and uses of mass media messages. As Goethals (1986) states, "it can be
hard to hear an extremely intelligent person on the radio, or see an extremely
handsome one in the grocery store, or participate on a panel with an expert
without engaging in social comparison no matter how much we would like not to"
(p. 272). Based on this statement and research on social comparison, it is
believed that people engage in some type of comparison when encountering other
people, namely media images. It also seems reasonable to speculate and
hypothesize that when people encounter social information such as the images or
characters presented in the mass media, audiences might automatically and
unconsciously engage in a social comparison.
It should be noted that people might not be able to consciously articulate
the comparison process or able to consciously register its effects (i.e.,
self-enhancement, self-improvement, etc). Research on social comparison
suggests that people do engage in some type of social comparison (refer to
Emmons & Diener, 1985; Richins, 1991; Wheeler & Miyake, 1991). The problem is,
however, some social comparisons occur without visible manifestations of their
effects. People, research suggests, may think about the social information
without exhibiting the effects of having done so (Wood 1996). People may
dismiss comparisons for self-defensive or ego protective reasons. For instance,
thoughts about another person as they relate to the self may be biased by one's
goals or habits (i.e. high self-esteem or optimism bias) and thus may color a
visible effect of a social comparison. Does this mean then that a social
comparison has not occurred? The answer is no. The person, this author
believes, has to make some judgement as to whether a target is similar or
dissimilar and may purposely select to avoid the comparison by derogating the
target or making thoughts that rate themselves more favorably on a number of
To test the hypothesis that most people engage in social comparison when
confronted with social information, Wheeler and Miyake (1992) asked respondents
to record all the thoughts and comparisons that occur in their everyday lives.
Since the researchers were also interested in the effects of the comparison they
also provided participants with specific definitions of a comparison. They told
them that "merely noticing a similarity with or a difference from another person
would not necessarily be called a comparison unless accompanied by some
psychological reactions" (Wheeler & Miyake, 1992, p. 762). The researchers
found some evidence and empirical support for social comparison thoughts and the
effects of social comparison processes.
Respondents in the study tended to make comparisons on two dimensions:
lifestyle and assets. Asset comparisons, comparisons made on ability,
appearance, and social skills, were more likely to occur when participants were
engaged in passive or informal conversations with close friends and relatives
(Wheeler & Miyake, 1995). Lifestyle comparisons, comparisons made on dimensions
regarding personality, lifestyle, and academic matters, on the other hand, were
more likely with acquaintances and strangers. These comparisons, the
researchers found, were most likely to be upward, a comparison process that will
be defined in the next section. So, mass media researchers employing social
comparison theory might be able to determine if viewers make comparisons with
media images based on Assets or Lifestyles.
The Major Social Comparison Goals
Social comparisons made with others who are superior to or better off than
oneself are referred to as upward comparisons. Individuals engaging in upward
comparison may learn from others, be inspired by their examples, or become
highly motivated to achieve similar goals. Upward comparisons, research
suggests, are invoked when individuals are motivated to change or overcome
problems (Major, Testa, Bylsma, 1991). Self-improvement is the main effect of
an upward comparison because the targets serve as role models and teach and
motivate individuals to achieve or overcome similar problems (Seta, 1982; Wood,
1989). According to literature on social comparison, an effective upward
comparison target is one who is extremely competent and is proficient and
skillful in terms of coping with personal problems (Major et al., 1991; Seta,
When a social comparison involves a target who is inferior, incompetent
and/or less fortunate, the comparison is referred to as a downward comparison
(Wills, 1981). The basic principle of downward comparison is that people feel
better about their own situation and enhance their subjective well-being when
they make comparisons with others who are worse off or less fortunate.
According to theory, downward comparisons help individuals cope with personal
problems by allowing them to see themselves and their problems in a better, more
positive light (Wood 1989). Downward comparisons are most likely to occur when
people engage in a social comparison with a target who is incompetent and less
fortunate (Sherman, Presson, & Chassin, 1984; Schulz & Decker, 1985).
Prevalence of Downward Social Comparisons. "People are ambivalent about
downward social comparison because it presents conflict with normative
prescriptions" (Wills, 1991, p. 53). Research suggests that one result of
downward comparisons is an increase in subjective well-being. "Simply put, this
basic principle of downward comparison theory suggests that people should feel
better about their own situation or about themselves if they find out there are
others who are worse off" (Gibbons & Gerrard, 1991, p. 318). Data on downward
social comparisons and media use suggest that everyday encounters with media
images may provide viewers with social information, information that encourages
them to think about the information and engage in an automatic, spontaneous
social comparison that ultimately effects mood and other aspects of subjective
well-being (Frisby & Weigold, 1994; Frisby, 1998; Wheeler & Reis, 1991; Wheeler
& Miyake, 1992). The information obtained from media use studies employing
social comparison theory could be used in the field of mass communication to
better understand how comparison processes in general operate in naturalistic,
everyday media environments (i.e., the effects of a passive or spontaneous
social comparison with media images on viewer attitude and affect) and how these
comparisons affect individuals' attitudes (Wheeler & Miyake, 1992; Wills, 1991).
FUTURE DIRECTIONS IN MASS MEDIA RESEARCH
How Social Comparison Theory Might Be Used to Explain Fascination with Mass
"A final issue is whether a model of self-enhancement through downward
comparison has utility for approaching phenomena that have not usually been
construed in social comparison terms, such as hostile humor, gossip,
vandalism, and effects of media on social behavior. Pursuit of questions
how social comparison theory applies to these phenomena could be an
endeavor" (Wills, 1991,k p. 74).
Downward social comparison theory may be used to explain why people like to
watch situation comedies and other comedic or humorous media content. Wills
(1981) speculated that embedded in humor are two paradoxical facts: a) the
stimulus for humor depicts common negative occurrences to a person, and b) the
response to the stimulus is positive affect. Therefore, the essence of humor,
according to Wills (1981), is "to provide a sophisticated way of presenting the
occurrence of misfortune" (p. 263). Wills goes on to argue that audiences
simply may appreciate humor because of the focus humor places on the misfortunes
of other people.
In a study focused on assessing the relationship between personality traits
and gratifications obtained from watching TV, Frisby (1995) found that
extroverts, people who enjoy the company of others, reported watching situation
comedies for information. What type of information do these shows provide? It
is possible to speculate that the information provided is social information and
audiences use this information to self-enhance. Future studies could determine
if humor provides the viewing audience with opportunities to engage in downward
comparisons and ease insecurities by making downward comparisons with somebody
else's misfortune, frustration, and imperfections. That, according to media
analysts and other researchers, is the basic fact of humor: it's not funny, they
say, unless "the humor is conducted at someone else's expense" (Wills, 1981, p.
263). Therefore, it is suggested that future mass media research explore the
notion that situation comedies elicit social comparisons and assess the impact
of this media vehicle on self-evaluation and subjective well-being. Research in
this area could determine if humor helps to ease insecurities by allowing people
to make downward comparisons with comedic content (i.e. comedy shows, situation
comedies, etc.) or shows that poke fun at a worse off other or someone less
fortunate and less perfect.
TV Soap Operas
Frisby (1995) conducted a study on the relationship among five personality
traits and gratifications obtained from watching TV programs. The study
revealed that introverts, individuals who described themselves as shy and
reserved, reported watching daytime soap operas for information. What type of
information are viewers getting from TV soap operas? A reviewer of the paper
offered an explanation for this finding: Some viewers, particularly introverts,
might use the information obtained from watching soap operas to change or
overcome interpersonal communication problems. Future research could determine
if media images and characters on TV soap operas serve as role models and if
these comparison targets teach or motivate individuals to overcome particular
problems (i.e. fashion or styles, conflicts in interpersonal relationships,
Future research could assess the particular comparison dimensions (i.e.,
personality, physical appearance, intelligence, career, etc) and other
informational cues viewers rely on when cognitively elaborating the social
information and media image. Research might then determine if self-improvement
is the main effect of this type of social comparison. Thus, research on this
topic could answer the question: do media images portrayed and depicted on TV
soap operas motivate individuals to do better and solve personal problems?
Social Comparison and Other Media Vehicles
Why do people read "The National Inquirer," "The Globe," or "The Star?"
Do people read these "trashy magazines" because they make them feel better about
their self-perceptions and their own life situations? Or does it make them feel
better to see similar others fail and face tragedies? Does reading about
another Elvis sighting by a local resident, for example, make an audience member
say, "And I thought I was abnormal, at least I haven't claimed to see Elvis!"
In light of the Princess Diana tragedy, social comparison theory might be a
useful theory to explain motivation to read and audience fascination with
tabloid media. In a related study on TV talk shows, Frisby (1998) found that
viewers experienced a significant boost in mood after witnessing shows that
focused on the misfortunes of another person. The Frisby (1998) study and
others employing social comparison theory and research should provide some
insights into explaining why consumers are attracted to other "trash" or tabloid
programs: viewers feel better about themselves and their life circumstances
after watching a worse off other. As far as practical applications, social
comparison theory, in this sense, might be employed to shed some understanding
of the underlying psychological gratifications obtained from reading The
National Enquirer and other tabloids. Future research could determine whether
or not social comparisons are elicited by print media and uncover the effects,
if any, of the social comparison.
It is possible that social comparison could also be elicited by talk radio.
Consequently, listeners of Howard Stern's radio show may feel better about their
values, opinions, and how they feel about other issues that are discussed on
this program. Future research could be used to address gratifications obtained
from frequent radio consumption and could determine if social comparisons are
elicited by talk radio.
"Sometimes when I thumb through a magazine or watch television and see
those ads with beautiful models, I don't really pay attention. I mean,
they don't really get to me personally. But, every now and then, there
will be something about the model that really gets to me and gets on my
nerves. Sometimes the model makes me feel jealous, depressed, or even mad
at myself. Then, I think, 'it's just a model. She's not like me.'"
Samantha, a 21 year-old African American College student (personal
communication, October 5, 1993).
Advertising researchers have recently started investigating the factors or
characteristics that influence attractiveness, likability, and desirability
(Morse & Gergen, 1970; Cash, Cash, & Butters, 1983, Myers & Biocca, 1992;
Richins, 1991; Wheeler & Miyake, 1992). However most of the studies that focus
on the effects of images in television advertising and programming on women
generally involve employment of samples that are comprised of primarily
Caucasian women. Researchers have largely ignored the effects of advertising
images on various ethnic groups. Few, if any, have focused on the effects of
idealized images on women of African-American, Asian, Hispanic, Indian, and
Research suggests that there is a relationship between idealized images in
the media and a woman's self-schema, perceptions of body images, mood,
self-esteem, and standards of beauty (refer to Cash et al., 1983, Grow, 1988,
Myers & Biocca, 1992, Richins, 1991; Wheeler & Miyake, 1992). Many women desire
to be physically attractive and appealing to others (see Savern, 1988).
According to Savern (1988), advertisers know that a desire for physical
attractiveness is tied closely with the female ego, therefore, they design and
create attractiveness-based messages and employ idealized images that can easily
stimulate desires for the product. Thus, it seems reasonable to hypothesize
that self-improvement or evidence of an upward comparison will occur when
consumers are confronted with advertising images. However, this statement is
not practical or realistic.
Research, for example, could determine how idealized images affect women of
different cultural backgrounds. The dominant image in most healthy and beauty
ads are images of Caucasians. Research utilizing social comparison theory and
research could be used to determine how Caucasian images affect the self-esteem
and mood of women of different cultures or ethnic backgrounds. Research in this
area could determine if advertising in this respect is doing more harm (i.e.,
deflating self-esteem of minority group members) or if the images encourage
people in different ethnic segments to engage in an upward comparison and
ultimately purchase products via use of idealized images. Since idealized
images are found everywhere and at any time, future research should explore
whether or not black women, for example, avoid social comparison with dissimilar
media images and only make comparisons with models in "black magazines."
media research techniques utilizing social comparison theory
Obtaining Evidence for a Social Comparison with Media Images
Assessing the Selection of Social Information and the Media Image
The selection of a media image (i.e. the acquiring of social information)
involves a deliberate search for and selection of a comparison target (Wood,
1996). With respect to TV talk shows, people may seem to benefit more from
downward comparison opportunities because they may actively seek comparison
targets that are inferior and less fortunate. For example, an individual that
has had a bad day, could specifically tune into a TV talk show because watching
these programs, he or she might say, makes them feel better and changes the bad
mood to a better one. Thus, people may choose comparison targets to socially
compare on attributes or dimensions that make them appear and feel more
advantaged (Taylor & Brown, 1988; Wood, 1989). Thus, the incompetent, inferior
media images or targets could motivate people to search memory and their prior
experiences for beliefs and self-concepts that enhance their existing claims of
superiority Prior beliefs about themselves, their efficacy, as well as control
over their future may bias people and therefore a social comparison with the
media image, particularly an inferior TV talk show guest, to enhance their
claims of superiority (Taylor & Brown, 1988). Thus, research in program choice
and selective exposure could determine if participants select media based on
media images or social information.
The Proposed Research Method and Procedure
A study employing this approach, for example, might provide participants
with some social information and then allow them the opportunity to see scores
of other people. In a mass media environment, research participants could
participate in small focus groups, take a bogus test, and then be informed of
their performance on the bogus test. Then, the researcher could describe
characters or TV programs and observe and assess characteristics of the media
image portrayed on the program the participants chose to watch.
Another method focusing on selection of media images might provide students
with a cover story that is somewhat threatening to the ego (i.e. you need to
talk with a counselor about your at-risk GPA). After this, the participants
might be asked to select a media vehicle to read or watch while waiting for the
event to occur. For example, the researcher could leave issues of Time, The
National Enquirer, and National Geographic and then assess the effects of
reading one of the magazines. Or, participants may be given the choice of
watching a media image that is undergoing or underwent a similar "threat." To
serve as a control, the research study may allow some participants to wait
without watching or reading any media. Studies employing this perspective might
be used tap into the preference for comparison targets and the effects of the
Assessing the Effects of and Reactions to Social Information
Research suggests that reactions to entertaining programs can be positive
or negative, depending on an individual's idiosyncratic needs (Zillman & Bryant,
1986; Zuckerman, 1979). Under this assumption, it is possible to speculate that
media, namely TV talk shows, may help viewers maintain or affirm their positive
self-evaluations. It can be hypothesized that social comparison with media
images produces a type of excitement or entertainment that helps people feel
better about their own lives and circumstances.
The Proposed Research Method and Procedure
Using this research technique, researchers would provide participants with
the media image and then measure the effects of the image on subjective well
being. This approach to research, according to Wood (1996), might address such
questions as: "what are the effects of comparisons with others that perform
better or worse than oneself?" One design, for example, might involve
manipulating comparison targets in a between-subjects fashion (Wood, 1996). Or,
another designer might expose each respondent to more than one comparison target
and incorporate a procedure and then ask respondents to choose the preferred
media image. This procedure, according to Wood (1996) taps into processes of
selection that people might use when they encounter social comparison targets
and information. Using this research method, mass media researchers could
explore the impact of a variety of media images on mood, self-esteem, life
satisfaction, performance, personality, lifestyle, and other comparison
Determining the Occurrence of a Social Comparison
Comparison targets in the media may simply remind viewers of similar
experiences or desires. This reminder could provide a type of inspiration or
warm feeling, but not a motive for or evidence of a comparison involving
self-enhancement or ego-protection. Research focused on social comparisons
with media images might employ self-reports or diaries in which participants
provide narratives about and descriptions of their media experiences and
perceptions of media targets. For example, participants may be asked if they
make comparisons with images in advertisements. Then, researchers might ask how
frequently they compare with advertising images and if they compare with the
media image's lifestyle or assets.
As in the Wheeler and Miyake (1992), respondents also might be asked to
record their social comparisons as they make them while watching television.
Respondents in a study of this type could be asked to record thoughts regarding
the dimension of comparison (i.e., appearance, personality), the direction of
the comparison (i.e., upward, downward, etc), and their mood. And, to and
provide support for the fact that social comparisons occur naturally and
subconsciously when people are confronted with social information, researchers
could ask people to record their thoughts while watching TV or reading magazines
and then content analyze the thoughts that contain expressions of or allude to
comparisons that people made spontaneously (Wood, 1996). One word of caution is
needed. People may be reluctant to admit that they compared themselves with
another, particularly an inferior other. Free-responses such as the one that is
being proposed in this section may capture comparisons that focus on selectivity
of the comparison target (Wood, 1996). Even Wills (1981) noted that downward
comparisons are socially undesirable. Hence, researchers should note that a
number of mechanisms have evolved such that people are able to keep the downward
comparison relatively private and implicit in order to lower the visibility of
the comparison or thought process (Wills, 1981)
It should be noted that many of the guests appearing on television talk
shows like Ricki Lake, Jenny Jones, and Jerry Springer tend to be "downward" or
at least guests who appear to be involved in tragic, unfortunate events. As a
content analysis of the show's topics revealed, rarely do TV talk show programs
focus on "upward" guests or people who have successfully overcome serious
tragedy (Abt & Mustazza, 1997). The main question guiding the present research
focused on understanding why viewers are fascinated with TV talk shows and talk
show topics such as "transplant recipients who claim to have adopted the
personalities of their donors."
Tragic events or exposure to tragic events affords individuals with the
opportunity to celebrate current life circumstances (Zillman & Bryant, 1986).
In fact, it could be hypothesized that exposure to tragic events invites social
comparison, and this comparison provides respondents with the opportunity to
compare and contrast their own situation with that of the "worse off" other.
The compare and contrast process ultimately produces a form of satisfaction.
"Seeing misfortunes befall others and seeing them suffering from it thus may
make viewers cognizant and appreciative of how good they have it" (Zillman &
Bryant, 1986, p. 317).
"In our information age it's especially true that the messages we
receive from the various media we are exposed to require constant
If we passively sit back and receive unexamined messages, failing or
consider not only what is said to us but how and why, we are open to the
grossest kinds of manipulation, passing itself off as 'entertainment'"(Abt
Mustazza, 1997, p. 83).
Research has revealed that among the most widely read items in the
newspaper are stories about accidents, accounts of disasters, and natural
phenomena, crime stories, and letters to the editor (i.e., Katz et al., 1973).
Literature on audiences suggests that if a news story is about a crime, tragedy,
or an accident, it is more likely be read than if it is about other more
complicated issues (Zillman & Bryant, 1986). What motivates readers to be
fascinated with bad or tragic news? Do people use the information for social
comparison purposes or are media images of crime and violence cultivated in our
minds? Do these images overpower the social comparison process and result in
perceptions of a mean and cruel world? The present study suggests that viewers
may be fascinated with crimes, accidents, and stories of tragic events because
the immediate effect of viewing this type of content is pure self-enhancing
The present paper suggests that the entertainment function of television
may involve viewing the misfortunes of others. The paper also suggests that
social information obtained from watching TV talk show guests might possibly
elicit a social comparison process, a process that provides "information"
viewers use primarily to feel better about themselves and their own lives. This
means that television talk shows may be consumed in part to help viewers
cognitively re-evaluate their own interpersonal problems and /or tensions.
Thus, as far as society is concerned, TV talk shows could have a more positive
effect because, if the data obtained in this study is correct, the shows may
provide viewers with a type of information that seems to enhance or change a
negative mood state. Future research should consider the research methods
presented in the paper in order to examine the long-term and short-term effects
of social comparison processes on self-concepts and viewer attitude (Bryant &
Zillman, 1984; Wood, 1996). Research in this area, for example, could determine
if low self-esteem people deliberately seek out and select media content to
enhance or change negative or threatened mood states.
Many television talk show hosts claim that guests on their shows help
viewers learn and inspire many of their loyal fans to overcome similar problems.
It is not clear, however, at what point viewers begin to feel a "psychological
closeness" with target guests and whether or not this closeness shifts the
social comparison behavior from a more passive comparison process to a
comparison with similar others that colors their perceptions of the show and the
show's topic. That is, at what point do viewers change from feeling better
about their own lives to copying the behavioral patterns of the talk show guest?
Another societal implication of this finding is that it attempts to examine
how different groups of individuals are affected by mass media messages,
particularly those contained in TV talk shows. The data suggest, for example,
that individual goals may bias the social comparison process (Kunda, 1990).
Thus, for example, high self-esteem people may not make comparisons with media
images designed to answer questions focused on how they are doing, but may
simply make comparisons that suggest that they are doing well. "People face
information about others nearly constantly and they may be forced to compare
themselves, regardless of whether they desire comparisons" (Wood, 1996, p. 523).
The present study assumes that consumers, when forced or confronted with social
information obtained in mass media messages, automatically compare themselves
and the comparisons may occur spontaneously and effortlessly even when the
target is dissimilar (Wood, 1996).
Talk Show Fascination
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has been diagnosed with AIDS).
 These magazines are listed for illustration purposes only. Research
should be used to uncover appropriate downward and upward targets. It is
assumed that downward comparison is one outcome of reading the National
Enquirer, but evidence to support this idea has not been conducted as of yet.