'Direction of Comparison' and the Subjectivation of Charity

'Direction of Comparison' and the Subjectivation of Charity

"The power and increase of every passion, and its persistence in existing are not defined by the power, whereby we ourselves endeavour to persist in existing, but by the power of an external cause compared with our own." - Spinoza Pt IV, Proposition V

The idea of perspective induced affect or stated in a different sense, affect induced perspective, competes in the contemporary West with two other notions: that of a fixed or endogenously constituted self, and equally, that of an equivalence between sign and representation. On the one hand the idea is continually presented that the self is endogenously defined and static. On the other that the world as one represents it (or as is represented to us) is not, or is only minimally an issue of interpretation and the visibility of signs.

The tale of Odysseus's fight with the beggar Iros (Arnaeus), besides bringing a tinge of humor to the Odyssey, combines three dynamics of social life that seem applicable not just in the era in which they were written, but equally for this contemporary West for whom the research of Schlosser and Levy illuminate mechanism of the subjectivation of charity. Firstly, social stratification and power dynamics under the form of wealth as represented in this example by the role of the beggar (ptóchos) vis a vis kurios (κύριος) --the heads of households--, and a King. Secondly, framing and framing effects through the curation of perception through the manipulation of signs. Thirdly, the socially codified expectations --of justice, honor and the purification of miasma in the Odyssean example or the modern idea of altruism or being a good person/citizen-- guiding both a value and reward system and perceptions of transgressions of the code.

In "Helping others or oneself: How direction of comparison affects prosocial behavior", Schlosser and Levy make the proposal that the direction of comparison --which will be defined below-- is an important predictor of a persons disposition to give. Working from the basis of prior research establishing the significance of comparison information for the response to existing affect (Aspinwall & Taylor, 1993), the uses of social comparison for self-regulation (Taylor, Wayment and Carillo 1996), and more recent studies showing the effects of upward and downward comparative identity reinforcement strategies on collective action (Becker 2012), and the effects of upward and downward comparison on prosociality in general (Yip & Kelly 2013), this study adds a new dimension to the field exploring effects of framing and self-reference/self-perception by exploring the nuances of self vs other appeals and the effects of benchmarks in egeneral to comparison situations. Two other minor contributions pertain to the issue of the effects of publicness of the request on the response and finally whether direction of comparison is still relevant in private appeals.

A downward comparison is defined as a comparison of oneself with a benchmark "whose attributes, outcomes, or emotional states are worse that one's own; that is, the comparison target is more disadvantaged, more inadequate, or more distrssed than onself" (Taylor, Wayment and Carillo 1996) as defined by the comparing subject. An upward comparison by contrast is a comparison with a benchmark who is performing or doing better, perceived as superior to oneself in attributes, outcomes or emotional states than the comparing subject (Taylor et al 1996).

Significance of Existing Literature

Since the inaugural work of Leon Festinger in the 1950's social science has tried to refine its understanding of the role and mechanisms of action of comparison for social and psychic life. The field of inquiry is centered around the idea that individuals continually compare themselves and others to benchamrks to assess who they and who others are. The specifics of such comparative activity leads to different outcomes for the self, leading to different outcomes socially when considered en masse. Am I doing ok? How to I compare to this person here? This group of people there? How do I compare to my rivals? My friends? But equally from an outside perspective one compares, how does this person, group, class of persons comapre to this other, this other group, this other class? The individuals interaction with external evaluations are just as relevant as his or her self-comparative or self-evaluative activity.

Direction of comparison
Since the 1960's with the publication of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology Social Comparison Supplements (B. Latane 1966) the issue of direction of comparison takes center stage as something akin to a backbone of comparison theory, the other pertaining to comparison's relationship to ingroup-outgroup pressures. Direction of comparison is that aspect of comparison that relates self to the degrees of upward, lateral or downward difference with a benchmark. Personal qualities or attributes, outcomes or performance in metric frameworks of relevance to a subject. The research findings generally point to directions of comparison being of significance to the effects on motivation and overall life outcomes.

Two significant early learnings demonstrated the manner in which e.g. comparison involving superior benchmarks increase likelihood of subjective focus upon self-improvement and the achievement of higher level (or of greater difficulty) goals; and equally, when self-comparisons are made using inferior benchmarks, it's shown that there will be an increased likelihood of self-satisfaction with existing standings, thus reducing self-improvement motives.

The literature on giving from the social science angle focuses on the types of social circumstances conducing of altruistic behavior or displays of empathy. Following Daniel Batson, there are generally four different avenues of the study of charitable acts or dispositions: altruism to ultimately benefit the self (egoism), to ultimately benefit the other person (altruism), to benefit a group (collectivism), or to uphold a moral principle (principlism). This makes the issue of considering pro's and con's an issue related to which fields of reference are of importance to specific charitable behaviors.

One minor axis of relevance here is the public/private giving distinction which changes significantly the focus of a subject's attention or motivation behind their behavior or action. Public giving for example can be used as an important tool for the signaling of things like status and/or prosocial traits. Private giving on the other hand has been studied for its capacity to "buy" moral satisfaction (e.g. Kahneman & Knetsch 1992), to view oneself as an altruistic (virtuous) individual akin to how an Ancient Athenian participated in a variety of activity designed to maintain traditions of "hospitality" (xenai/ξενίa). An example capable of existing in both the public and private domains are acts of taking advantage of opportunities to advance in ones skills/capacities/ experience/exposure as occurs in the example of the gift of (volunteering of) time.


Direction of Comparison based on Performance Feedback
Experiment results shows that consistent with the hypothesis made (H1a), when context highlights how an act of giving will benefit others, a subject is more likely to give after making a downward rather than upward comparison. The behaviors of giving were consistent with the subjects' intentions and carried with both monetary and non-monetary giving behaviour and intentions.

In order to rule out changes in affect as being the mechanism of influence, bootstrap analyses were conducted to testing "positive", "empathic", "distressed" and "envious" states of mind, with results showing that none could be shown to be a significant factor in the comparison effect.

Direction of Comparison and Type of Charitable Appeal
The second study builds on these findings by varying whether an appeal highlights how helping benefits others vs the self. Consistent with H1a, the other-benefit appeals matched with downward comparison led to charitable behavior. However, self-benefit appeals, as hypothesized (H1b), showed no significant difference whether comparisons were downward or upward in direction. Both H1a and H1b held for both behavior and intentions.

The Instrumentality of Giving for Expressing Altruistic Values
Study three extends the first two set of findings by considering the effect (if any) of altruistic values. It replicated the findings of the first two, but also found evidence in support of the second hypothesis (H2) --that the reason those making downward comparison (vs upward or lateral) give more when faced with an other-benefit appeal is due to the instrumentality of giving to express altruistic values (e.g. doing ones part to help those in need).

Challenging Beliefs of How Giving Benefits Others vs Self
Study four sought to tease out more detail on the instrumentality of giving as means of expression of (reproduction of) values as opposed to a self-directed utilitarian (egoic) motive. This was to be done by testing hypothesis three, that when the context challenges other-benefit beliefs by suggesting that giving can harm others, those making downward (vs upward) comparisons should give less (H1a) and that context challenging self-benefit beliefs should have little to no consequence on giving (H1b).

As anticipated study four replicated previous findings for H1a and H1b. Results also confirmed H3 in showing that when other-benefit beliefs were challenged, donations were significantly lower amongst those who made downward comparisons. Those making upward comparisons with self-benefit beliefs that were challenged showed only a non-statistically significant change with a slight reduction in willingness to give. The authors saw a consistency with the results of study 3 as it appears that the instrumentality of giving as a means of expressing altruistic values is the process underlying the effect of downward (vs upward) comparisons on giving.


Giving is here as with previous studies shown to be highly sentitive to framing effects via directions of comparison. Additionally we see two subcomponents to the framing related to the utility of an act of giving, calling out, in turn, self vs other benefit and benefit vs harm.

Giving decreases with downward comparisons on the condition of framing stating, suggesting or creating ambiguity surrounding harm or potential created by the act or conversely suggestions of egoic benefit, otherwise one sees an increase in propensity to give. Giving increased from the baseline for upward comparison only on condition of framing reinforcing self-benefit beliefs (e.g. increasing social capital, developing in-group associations with superiors etc) or challenging other-benefit beliefs. Of equal importance here is the finding that differences in belief (or perception) about the instrumentality of giving as a means of expression of altruistic values plays an important role as to whether downward directions of comparison influence charitability. This finding is incompatible with common hypotheses that e.g. 1) posit changes in affect as being correlated with charitable behavior; or that 2) posit that those with more resources give more resources. Neither appears to be validated with the studies conducted here.

We opened with a quote from Spinoza, the reason for which may not yet be apparent. The innovations of Spinoza's ontology (although we could have equally used examples from Nietzsche or Foucault but to slightly different ends) makes present the philosophical implications of the above research insofar as it presented social being as being defined by the encounters, signs and affects of bodies in relations to other bodies. Social being is a being of heterogeneities and hierarchies. And affection (affectio in Spinoza, not to be confused with affectus) is always a subjects' temporal enveloping of these heterogeneities and hierarchies --that is to say, in later terms, the heterogeneities and dynamics of power relations. What I've above described in terms of framing are always issues of "knowledge" ("Ideas" in Spinoza) --i.e. what one knows/sees and how-- of a scenario or state of affairs. What is referred to as the instrumentality of giving or of any given response to an appeal are specific strategies or exercises of power (ethics) vis-a-vis other forces. The two sides of seeing/knowing and exercising power (affecting and being affected) seem to be mututally presupposing. How well one understands the relation between the two, and the nature and modes of the exercise of power, changes what can be seen/known and thus changes the capacity one has in potential framings and the instrumental use of giving and giving-scenarios.


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