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The selective accessibility model of social comparison

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Sometimes, a specific object, person, or concept can bias perceptions of subsequent events. For example, Stapel, Koomen, and Ven der Pligt (1997) showed that individuals who read words that were synonymous with violence were subsequently more likely to perceive a person as unfriendly. This pattern of findings is often called assimilation--in which the perception of some stimulus, called the target is assimilated towards the perception of a previous stimulus, called the prime or standard.

Nevertheless, some the perception of some stimulus is shifted away from the perception of a previous stimulus or prime, called a contrast effect. For instance, after exposure to the namese of violent leaders, such as Hitler, participants were subsequently more likely to perceive a person as friendly not unfriendly.

A variety of theories have been proposed to predict whether assimilation or contrast is more likely to prevail, such as the inclusion and exclusion model (Schwarz & Bless, 1992, 2007). One of the most compelling accounts was provided by Mussweiler (2001), who developed the selective accessibility model. This model is primarily applied to predict how an object, concept, or person will affect how individuals perceive themselves.

Description of the model

According to the model of selective accessibility, the prime--that is, the object, person, or concept that precedes self evaluations--enhances or inhibits the acccessibility of self knowledge or information (Mussweiler, 2001). For example, after individuals read the word "hostile", they might become more likely to remember occasions in which they acted with hostility. That is, instances of their own hostility become more accessible. As a consequence, they become more inclined to perceive themselves as hostile--representing an assimilation effect. That is, accessible self knowledge is more likely to determine self perceptions (see Higgins, 1996).

Nevertheless, after individuals read about a dictator, such as Hitler, they might become more inclined to remember occasions in which their behavior diverged from the demeanor of this leader. They might, for example, recall incidents in which they acted supportively and sympathetically rather than violently or aggressively. In other words, knowledge of their tendency to act cooperatively might become more accessible diminishing the likelihood they perceive themselves as hostile, manifesting a contrast effect.

The key question, then, is which factors determine whether knowledge that is consistent or inconsistent with the prime will be activated. Mussweiler (2001) stipulated several factors, most of which related to whether the context orients individuals towards similarity or dissimilarity.

Similarity versus dissimilarity

Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, individuals are more orientated towards seeking similarities between objects. In these instances, self knowledge that is consistent with the prime is more likely to be activated, and assimilation is more likely to ensue.

For example, in a study conducted by Mussweiler (2001), some participants were instructed to reflect upon the similarities between various sketches. After this exercise, assimilation prevailed. For example, after exposure to a person who exhibited neuroticism, individuals became more likely to recognize this trait in themselves. That is, the prime activated self knowledge--memories and beliefs, for example--that implied the individuals might exhibit neuroticism as well.

In contrast, other participants were instructed to reflect upon the differences between various sketches. This exercise generated a contrast effect (Mussweiler, 2001).

Several factors determine whether individuals will orient towards seeking similarities or differences. For example, striking and coincidental similarities between the prime and individual can evoke an orientation towards similarity. In a study conducted by Brown, Novick, Lord, and Richards (1992), for example, some participants were informed they share a birthday with an attractive person. Subsequently, they were more likely to demonstrate assimilation--that is, they were more inclined to perceive themselves as attractive as well. Thus, a sense of closeness to the prime is more likely to provoke assimilation than contrast (Mussweiler, 2001).

Many other factors that affect perceived similarity have been discovered. One example includes similarity in the products that two stores sell, for example, (Levin, 2002). The performance of one store was more likely to be assimilated towards the performance of a previous store, if these two shops offered a similar product range.


As Steinmetz and Mussweiler (2011) showed, the ambient temperature may also affect the likelihood of assimilation or contrast. In particular, parents often hug their children or use other means to ensure they are safe and warm. Friends and partners may also attempt to provide warmth to each other. Therefore, over time, people associate warmth with friendship and affiliation. Accordingly, when warm, their attention is biased towards cues that reflect friendship and affiliation, such as similarity. Indeed, research indicates that individuals are more likely to perceive someone as similar to themselves in warmer temperatures (Ijzerman & Semin, 2010).

This sense of similarity tends to evoke assimilation rather than contrast. In other words, when the ambient temperature is warmer than usual, people will perceive someone else as similar to themselves. If, for example, this person seems strong, individuals will thus assume they are strong as well.

These possibilities were corroborated by Steinmetz and Mussweiler (2011). In one study, participants needed to rate the extent to which they perceived various pairs of objects, such as bicycles and motor cycles, as similar to one another. If the temperature that day was warm rather than cold, participants were more inclined to perceive these objects as similar to each other.

In the second and third studies, male participants observed a photograph of a man who either appeared very strong or not strong at all. Next, these participants were asked to estimate their own strength. For example, they were asked to estimate the number of press-ups they could complete. If this study was completed in a warm booth, assimilation ensued. That is, participants were more likely to perceive themselves as strong after observing a strong man. If this study was completed in a cooler booth, assimilation dissipated and mild contrast ensued. That is, participants were more likely to perceive themselves as strong after observing a weaker man.

Cooperation versus competition

In addition, a context that promotes cooperation and cohesion might orient individuals towards similarity, whereas a context that promotes competition and rivalty might orient individuals towards differences. That is, in contexts that promote cooperation, individuals attempt to feel connected to a broader collective. To cultivate this sense of connection, they prefer to feel similar to other members (see Stapel & Van der Zee, 2006). Thus, cooperation should promote a pursuit of similarities.

Consistent with this premise, Stapel and Koomen (2005) showed that a cooperative orientation promoted assimilation with primes, whereas a competitive orientation promoted contrast from primes. In addition, a cooperative context was shown to be more likely than a competitive context to evoke an orientation towards similarities (see also Kemmelmeier & Oyserman, 2001).

Extremity of the comparison

Several studies have shown to moderate primes--that is, individuals who are not extreme on some trait or dimension--often provoke assimilation. In contrast, extreme primes often evoke contrast effects. For example, as Lockwood and Kunda (1997) showed, when the prime manifests a trait that is attainable, not extreme, assimilation prevails. In contrast, when the prime manifests a trait that is unattainable, contrast effects emerge.

According to Mussweiler (2001), if a prime is moderate and attainable, individuals are more inclined to focus on similarities between this standard and themselves, promoting assimilation. In contrast, if a prime is extreme and unattainable, an emphasis on similarities is discouraged, and contrast prevails.

Extreme primes, such as Albert Einstein, for example, might occasionally evoke a focus on similarities, provided that individuals feel they can change fundamentally. That is, if individuals perceive themselves as malleable, not immutable, they might not the traits these primes exhibit as unattainable, which fosters an emphasis on similarities and the likelihood of assimilation effects. Consistent with this proposition, when individuals perceived themselves as malleable, assimilation was more likely (Stapel & Koomen, 2000).

Self-evaluation maintenance theory and the importance of relevance

According to self-evaluation maintenance theory (Tesser, 1988), when someone close thrives, individuals sometimes feel inferior in comparison, similar to a contrast effect. They evaluate themselves unfavorably as a consequence. Yet, on other occasions, when someone close thrives, individuals feel like they have shared this victory, similar to an assimilation effect. They evaluate themselves favorably as a consequence. Both this contrast and assimilation effect is pronounced only when the other person feels close, such as a relative or friend

One key characteristic determines wheteher contrast or assimilation will prevail: relevance. If someone thrives on a task that is relevant to a close friend, this friend will demonstrate contrast and experience a low self-evaluation. If someone thrives on a task that is not central to a close friend, this friend will demonstrate assimilation and experience a high self-evaluation. Thus, people with distinct skills are not as likely to feel envy towards each other.

Yet, individuals can initiate a range of defence mechanisms to override the negative feelings that people experience when a close friend thrives on a task they perceive as central to their own identity. They might diminish their closeness to this person and even avoid this individual. They could learn another task to change which tasks they perceive as central. They could even sabotage their friend.

Reconciliation of conflicting findings and theories

A focus on similarities might provoke an awareness of differences

LeBouf and Estes (2004) uncovered some findings that, at first, might seem to contradict the model of selective accessibility. Individuals focussed on either similarities, or differences, between themselves and Albert Einstein. If individuals focussed on similarities, rather than differences, they were more likely to demonstrate contrast rather than assimilation effects. That is, they were less likely to perform proficiently on a subsequent test of cognitive ability.

These findings, however, can be reconciled with the model of selective accessibility. In particular, when individuals focus on similarities between themselves and Albert Einstein, differences might become more salient. That is, when individuals recognize some similarities between themselves and Einstein, the apparent difference in intelligence might seem even more striking and compelling.

Inclusion and exclusion

The model of selective accessibility is similar to, but distinct from, an earlier theory, proposed by Schwarz and Bless (1992, 2007). According to their model, assimilation prevails if the prime and target can be conceptualized as facets of the same entity, called inclusion. Contrast prevails if the prime and target must be conceptualized as distinct entities, called exclusion.

Consistent with this premise, Liberman, Liberman, and Kuschel (2008) examined whether individuals are more or less likely to perceive a person as aggressive after exposed to concepts that relate to hostility. Participants who had been primed to reflect upon broad, abstract categories were more likely to demonstrate assimilation. Participants who had been primes to reflect upon specific details were more likely to demonstrate contrast.

Presumably, an emphasis on broad concepts increases the likelihood that individuals recognize an overlap between the prime and target, which thus fosters assimilation. These findings thus align with the inclusion and exclusion model.

From the perspective of selective accessibility, inclusion can be conceptualized as a factor that evokes a focus on similarity. Exclusion can be conceptualized as a motivation to seek differences. Accordingly, the inclusion and exclusion model can be embedded within the framework of selective accessibility.

Stages of information process

According to Mussweiler (2001), assimilation and contrast are overlapping mechanisms, but merely differ on whether individuals are orientated towards similarities or discrepancies. In contrast, some authors assume that assimilation and contrast manifest different phases of information processing (see Stapel, Koomen, & Ven der Pligt, 1997 & Stapel, Koomen, & Zeelenberg, 1998). For example, assimilation prevails when primes bias the encoding of targets. However, contrast preails when prime represent a point of comparison or reference, during the selection of responses.

One example of this alternative perspective is the interpretation comparison model, promulgated by Stapel and colleagues (e.g., Avramova & Stapel, 200& Stapel, 2007 & Stapel & Koomen, 2001 & Stapel, Koomen, & Ven der Pligt, 1996). According to this model, primes sometimes act as a prime to disambiguate and encode information about the target. In these instances, assimilation effects will prevail. For example, the words "hostile" or "obliging" might subsequent help individuals ascertain whether or not the behavior of someone is aggressive. "Hostile" will most likely underscore the behaviors that epitomize aggression, whereas "obliging" will underscore behaviors that epitomize cooperation.

On other occasions, primes act as standards that individuals use to ascertain the level of some trait or characteristic. In these instances, contrast will tend to prevail. To illustrate, if a photograph of Hitler is designated as a prime, and applied as a standard of comparison, a subsequent person will seem obliging rather than aggressive (see also Martin, 1986& Trope, 1986 & Wyer & Scrull, 1989).

According to this model, many factors determine whether primes will be applied to disambiguate the encoding process or to serve as a standard of comparison. First, the relative timing of the prime is pertinent. Second, whether the prime is abstract or specific also affects its role. That is, sometimes, primes are perceived as abstract and diffuse rather than attributable to a specific person or object. The word "hostile", without a context for example, is abstract rather than attribution to a specific instance. Abstract primes tend to disambiguate subsequent stimuli and thus evoke assimilation.

On other occasions, the prime is attributable to a specific person or object, such as a photograph of Hitler. These specific instantiations can readily function as a comparison standard and, hence, promote contrast effects (e.g., Stapel, 2007& Stapel, Koomen, & Ven der Pligt, 1997)

Consistent with this proposition, Avramova and Stapel (2008) showed that positive moods, which tend to elicit abstract conceptualizations, promote assimilation effects. In contrast, negative moods, which are more likely to focus attention on specific instantiations, promote contrast effects.

Some of these findings, however, could be ascribed to the concept of selective accessibility. Positive moods might imply a benign environment, which relates to a sense of cooperation, a subsequent awareness of similarities, and thus assimilation effects. Negative moods might represent a threatening environment, which relates to a sense of competition, a subsequent awareness of differences, and thus contrast effects.

Contrast versus correction

Another complication to this field is that contrast effects cannot be readily distinguished from correction processes. For example, after individuals observe a photograph of Hitler, they might initially perceive a subsequent person as hostile as well, representing an assimilation effect. However, if aware of this possibility, they might then correct or adjust this perception before they response to any questions about this individual. Conceivably, they might adjust their initial perception inordinately, appraising the person as especially obliging (e.g., Shwartz & Clore, 1996).

Nevertheless, several observations challenge this alternative proposition. In particular, when individuals are asked to answer as accurately as possible--which should magnify these corrections--contrast is no more likely to prevail (e.g., Stapel, Koomen, & Zeelenberg, 1998).

Implications of assimilation and contrast

The effect of computer games on violent behavior

Contrast effects could partly explain the impact of violent computer games on aggression in daily life. Specifically, according to Greitemeyer (2014), after individuals play violent computer games, they perceive everyday acts of aggression, such as mocking or shoving someone, as less aggressive in comparison. Consequently, they perceive these everyday acts as more acceptable. This possibility explains not only the effect of violent computer games on aggression in daily life, as substantiated by a meta-analysis (Anderson et al., 2010), but also the tendency of gamers to deny they behave violently.

Greitemeyer (2014) conducted a series of studies that substantiate these arguments. In one study, for example, participants played either a violent or neutral video game. Next, they imagined they had perpetuated a range of acts, such as shoving someone. Finally, they rated the degree to which they perceived each act as aggressive on a 9 point scale. Participants who played the violent video game were not as likely to perceive these acts as aggressive. Furthermore, a subset of participants imagined other people perpetuating these aggressive acts: Playing violent video games did not affect the degree to which the behavior of other people seemed aggressive.

A subsequent study showed that people who underestimate the level of aggression in these acts are more likely to behave aggressively. That is, after playing a violent video game, people not only rated acts as less aggressive but were more likely to punish another person harshly.


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