Compassion over competition: The momentary and longitudinal benefits of adopting a caregiving mentality in the face of appearance comparisons
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Social comparisons in the appearance domain are a harmful yet prevalent practice, increasing body dissatisfaction and negative affect among women (Leahey et al., 2011). The adverse effects of making upward appearance comparisons – that is, comparing one’s appearance unfavourably to another’s appearance – on body dissatisfaction and eating pathology have been consistently established in the literature (Cattarin et al., 2000; Leahey et al., 2007; Lin & Kulik, 2002; Tiggemann & McGill, 2004). Yet women continue to make them, and consequently, continue to suffer from their harms. Festinger’s (1954) social comparison theory suggests that the negative effects of upward appearance comparisons could be counteracted by making subsequent downward appearance comparisons. That is, after comparing one’s appearance unfavourably to a given individual, this could translate to comparing one’s appearance favourably to a different person’s appearance or making favourable comparisons to the initial individual in other domains (e.g., intelligence, popularity). Research suggests, however, that this approach of counteracting upward appearance comparisons with downward comparisons is not consistently helpful (Rancourt et al., 2016; Lin & Kulik, 2002) and may also be problematic in its perpetuation of a competitive orientation toward others. Inspired by Gilbert’s (2000) social mentality theory, the present dissertation tests a novel way to mitigate the negative effects of upward appearance comparisons: the adoption of a compassion-based caregiving mentality (i.e., cultivating an attitude of care and compassion) towards the targets of unfavourable appearance comparisons. Three experimental studies sought to programmatically investigate the potential in harnessing the caregiving mentality to buffer the negative consequences of appearance comparisons on women’s body image, and more broadly, psychological and social well-being. Study 1 compared the momentary effects of adopting a caregiving mentality relative to remaining in a competitive mentality by making favourable comparisons towards the target of a recalled unfavourable appearance comparison. A control condition in which participants were guided to distract themselves from the feelings of the unfavourable comparison altogether was also included. Results suggested that the adoption of a caregiving mentality towards unfavourable appearance comparison targets was as helpful in reducing state body dissatisfaction as making favourable comparisons in non-appearance domains, and that both interventions were more effective than the control intervention. In addition, the caregiving mentality strategy more significantly increased state feelings of peacefulness, and more significantly reduced state distress as well as state motivation to make further appearance comparisons, than the competition and control conditions. Study 2 sought to replicate these positive momentary benefits to affective and body-specific well-being in the context of a live appearance comparison and in a social media setting using the same three intervention conditions as Study 1. Study 2 also incorporated the additional outcomes of self-compassion and feelings of social safeness and included a novel behavioural task after the main intervention to investigate appearance comparison behaviour through the proxy variable of participant viewing time of pre-selected social media images. Results reinforced the momentary benefits of adopting a caregiving mentality towards the targets of unfavourable appearance comparisons. Again, while the caregiving mentality strategy was not unique in improving body dissatisfaction, affect, and social safeness, it had significantly greater impacts in reducing comparison motivation and boosting self-compassion and feelings of connectedness (towards comparison targets). Exploratory analyses from the behavioural task were consistent with these findings, suggesting that those who practiced remaining in the competitive mentality subsequently spent more time viewing comparison-oriented images. Study 3 sought to determine whether after an unfavourable appearance comparison, the adoption of a caregiving mentality may be more beneficial than remaining in a competitive mentality to participants’ affective and body-specific well-being, their comparison motivation, self-compassion, and social safeness. Of note, Study 3 also built on the previous studies by directly comparing comparison context (live vs. recalled comparison) as well as by investigating the relative effects of momentary and longitudinal practice of the strategies of interest. As with Studies 1 and 2, participants practicing either strategy reported momentary benefits to affect, body dissatisfaction, self-compassion, social safeness/connectedness, and comparison motivation. The caregiving mentality strategy proffered some advantages relative to the competitive mentality strategy, including increased positive affect, decreased body dissatisfaction and motivation to make appearance comparisons, and greater feelings of connectedness to the comparison target. Benefits were sustained longitudinally by the practice of either strategy, but outcomes did not differ as a function of condition. Longitudinally, although all participants reported lower body dissatisfaction, restrained eating, and body image comparison orientation, as well as higher self-compassion and social safeness, those who had practiced the caregiving mentality strategy reported greater reductions in body image comparison orientation and significantly increased feelings of social safeness. Taken together, findings from this program of research suggest that while it is clearly beneficial to intervene in some way following an unfavourable appearance comparison, adopting a compassionate care-driven attitude towards comparison targets has significant momentary advantages to well-being. When practiced over even a few days, it also leads to increases in social safeness and importantly, reduces body image comparison orientation. Findings suggest adopting a caregiving mentality may offer women are relief from the competitive mentality that keeps them entrenched in the vicious cycle of comparison.
Cite this version of the work
Kiruthiha Vimalakanthan (2021). Compassion over competition: The momentary and longitudinal benefits of adopting a caregiving mentality in the face of appearance comparisons. UWSpace. http://hdl.handle.net/10012/17299