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Social Comparison in the Era of Social Media Public

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As obesity continues to remain an epidemic, health behavior researchers are tasked with finding cost-effective, wide-reaching, and efficacious interventions to decrease obesity risk. One such approach that researchers can take is to manipulate highly prevalent forms of social influence, including social comparison. Social Comparison Theory (SCT) has been found to successfully impact one of the most proximal determinants of obesity: physical inactivity. What remains to be understood is the degree to which social comparison processes have the desired effect on physical activity (PA). Furthermore, if the literature reflects these effects, how can comparison information be manipulated in an efficient and effective manner that can easily be disseminated? The first paper of this dissertation (Chapter 2) provides a systematic overview of the research literature that has empirically tested the application of social comparison to the PA domain, as well as the theory’s operationalization via a prominent, widespread setting (i.e., social media). Such a systematic review appears to have not been done previously. The results of the systematic review fail to provide a definitive answer to the degree of influence that social comparison information has on PA, and no literature was found to address the latter objective (application within social media). In addition to conducting this systematic review, additional research was completed to empirically examine the effects of social comparison information on PA utilizing a social networking platform (i.e., Twitter; Paper 2 and Paper 3). Both Paper 2 and Paper 3 augment this area of research by examining the combined effects of upward and downward comparison information. Intuitively, the combination of upward and downward comparison information might be perceived as unnecessary as these effects are presumed to cancel each other out. However, upward and downward comparison are operated by qualitatively different mechanisms, implying that a combination of these two forms of information may in actuality not cancel each other out. The first experiment (Paper 2) addressed these gaps in the literature by testing the effects of social comparison target on PA cognitions and behavior using a longitudinal study in a naturalistic setting. The results did not provide evidence for the effectiveness of social comparison information –including combined target information –on PA cognitions or behavior. Social comparison orientation and PA self-efficacy, which were explored as moderators of this relationship, did not produce significant effects. The last paper (Paper 3) of this dissertation translated the design of the experimental, real-world study into a controlled, laboratory setting and employed a cross-sectional design to examine the influence of comparison target information on PA cognitions with social comparison orientation and PA self-efficacy serving as moderators. Identical conclusions to the first experimental study (Paper 2) were drawn, no main effects or interaction effects were statistically significant. However, in consolidating the empirical findings that address the relationship between SCT and PA and examining an innovative approach to operationalizing and combining social comparison information, the present research can serve as a roadmap to implementing SCT manipulations using social networking sites and augment interventive efforts to reduce obesity.

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