Social Comparison and the Doctoral Application Process

I haven’t been too personal on the blog, which makes sense, because this is for a class, so I’m really just working on noting the phenomena we discuss in class as they occur in real life. However, I figure it can’t be too bad to be personal, as this blog is implicitly very personal, as I am drawing from my own interests and experiences for topics to write about. With that being said, I’m going to essentially write this entire post about myself. It won’t be that bad, I promise, just a little self-serving. Specifically, I want to write today about the concept of social comparison and how it has applied to my experience applying to clinical psychology doctoral programs.

A bit of background first: clinical psychology doctoral programs, unlike some other psychology doctoral programs, do their application process in two steps. First is the online (formerly paper) application, where one fills in their GPA, their GRE scores, attaches a personal statement and letters of recommendation, etc., and sends all this information electronically to the schools they are interested in. Clinical psychology is a fairly popular field to try to attend graduate school in, so many schools get over 300 applications, some of the ones I have visited reported receiving 600 or more applications, which is high for a doctoral program. After all the schools receive all these applications, they narrow this applicant pool down for the second step of the process, which is the interview portion.

Most schools do their interviews on campus, though some elect to offer phone or Skype interviews as a substitute. When you apply, you list your top preferred mentors, so interview invites are sent out on a lab-by-lab basis. Schools generally invite anywhere from 2 to 12 people per lab, usually resulting in anywhere from 20 to 60 people being invited for an interview (out of 300+, if you’re keeping score at home). Of note is the fact that most labs only will admit one applicant out of those that they invited to interview, meaning that acceptance rates at clinical programs are often under 2% out of all applicants that sent in the initial online application. Most schools try to get all their applicants to interview at the same time, either during the same weekend or spread over 2 or 3 interview days. It is during this on-campus interview process that the social comparison concept comes into play.

The immediate consequence of schools interviewing all the applicants invited on the same day(s) is that all the applicants have the chance to meet each other, even those applying for the same lab, which brings social comparison into play. When people engage in social comparison, they evaluate themselves by comparing themselves to others. This is done to reduce anxiety and uncertainty about the self. Social comparisons are often made to similar others in order to see where one stands, though downward social comparisons (which enhance self-esteem) and upward social comparisons (which threatens self-esteem) depending on the context of the social comparison, in that when self-esteem is low, downward comparisons are made, and when one is motivated to improve the self, upward comparisons are made.

So in the interview days at the schools, I got plenty of exposure to other applicants, on the first night (day before the interview), I usually got thrown into an opening night dinner with other applicants; at one school, it was a standing buffet dinner with 60+ applicants all standing in a big room with graduate students, at another it was centered around tables with only 20-30 applicants divided among 5 tables, and at another school it was only the applicants for the same lab and the graduate students, so only 4 applicants. However, at all the schools, I spent any down time I had as well as meals on the actual interview day in one central room where all the other applicants are, so there was plenty of time to meet other prospective graduate students. And whether it was at the dinner or during the interview day, when applicants talked to each other, the conversation eventually starts to reflect social comparisons being made. People always ask what you are doing right now. This, of course, is a perfectly normal question to ask, it’s pretty ordinary to ask somewhat what they do for a living. However, in the context of interview day, this question becomes a vehicle for social comparisons. When you are applying for clinical psychology programs, you are usually being evaluated on your academic credentials, your research experience, the match between your research interests and the lab focus, and other smaller factors like social fit. Thus, asking people what they do isn’t just nice small talk, it’s a way to assess what a person’s research experience consists of and what their research interests are. Is the person currently a research assistant at a known lab? Do they do research that fits really well with the lab they are applying to? How does that person’s research experience compare to mine? These are questions I found myself wondering, even if I didn’t directly ask someone what they did, and I don’t think its a stretch to guess that other applicants were thinking the same thing.

Going into the interview day at each school, I thought that I would try as hard as possible to avoid social comparisons completely. In a strange way, I didn’t want to try to figure out where I stood in terms of my research experience, mostly because I did not want to open myself up to the possibility that I was lacking in that department compared to others.I might have been taking on some uncertainty and anxiety as a result, but I preferred to protect myself (and my self-esteem) from the worst-case scenario that could result from making those comparisons. I figured I could go in and talk sports, music, TV, and movies and avoid comparisons. However, when I was in the interview day situation, I just couldn’t help but eventually talk about my own research or other people’s research at some point, and then internally I started to note the other person’s accomplishments, like how they’ve been doing research for 2 years already, or how they work in a lab that studies the same exact topic as the lab they are applying to. As a result, at least for me, I grew a little anxious with each comparison, as I started to realize just how qualified everyone was. However, I was able to resolve those feelings after some thinking, as I remembered that I was invited just as these other applicants were, so we had to be somewhere in the same ballpark as far as qualifications. So as it turned out, social comparisons ended up being a fairly pervasive thing during these days, despite my best efforts, and it initially provoked, not reduced, some anxiety, but ended up not being such a bad thing, as it reminded me of my own qualifications.


Social Identity and Video Games: Online Communities and the “Gamer” Identity

The concept of social identity is seen at work in a variety of contexts, such as sports teams, political parties, ethnic groups, and many other affiliative groups. One interesting context in which social identity can be observed at work is the online communities that have sprung up around video games. Video games themselves are a relevantly new phenomenon, being only commercially sold since 1971. However, the prominence of video games has risen in a similar fashion to the prominence and prevalence of the internet. As such, the fans of video games, much like the general populace of the world, have taken readily to the internet, convening often on message boards, like NeoGAF and Penny Arcade. These sorts of websites have been able to provide a virtual community in which those who enjoy video games can meet to talk about video games or even just have a general discussion. These communities have served to solidify an emerging social identity, that of the “gamer”. Many who frequent these message boards (or forums) refer to themselves and other enthusiasts as “gamers”. The gamer identity existed for a significant period of time as a relatively socially undesirable identity, often negatively stereotyped as a “nerd” identity for social outcasts and associated with images such as immature adults huddled around a computer screen in their parents’ basement.

Googling "gamer" results in this.

However, the gamer identity has eventually evolved into a more relatively common identity to embrace, with celebrities professing their love for games and featuring prominently in advertisements for video games. The gamer identity may seem to not be a social identity until you consider the role of gaming forums in the development of the gamer identity. Those who frequently played video games were fairly isolated before the prevalence of the internet, as they could only talk to their friends and others they saw in person about video games, limiting the number of people they could communicate and share their enthusiasm with. However, with the emergence of the internet as commonplace in society, gaming forums also started up as a way for video game fans to share their opinions and also make new friends with similar interests. Furthermore, even though the “gamer” identity coalesced with the help of online communities, one such community, Penny Arcade, has translated the virtual gathering of gamers into a real, physical gathering of gamers at an event called Penny Arcade Expo (or PAX). PAX is a convention focused specifically on gamers, especially those who are fans of the Penny Arcade comic strip and also frequent the Penny Arcade forums, with attendance figures reaching 70,000 people last year. For a more concise and visually affecting description of PAX, I present:

PAX has served as an effective way to bring gamers with similar interests together, further solidifying the social identity of gamers by adding on to virtual interactions with in-person face-to-face interactions. Despite the value in meeting other gamers face-to-face, the evolution of the “gamer” social identity has shown that identities can be constructed through the medium of technology, and that you don’t need to physically meet to have a shared sense of community.

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“They Saw a Game” in a Modern Context

Hastorf and Cantril’s (1954) seminal case study relating to differing versions of a Dartmouth-Princeton game perceived by fans on either side remains remarkably relevant today. Back in the 50s, sports fans were constructing their own realities about what transpired in a game, influenced by their own affiliations and biases. This phenomenon continues to today, as sports fans continue to differ from each other on what they “see” in a game, dependent on whom their rooting interest lies with or their other biases and prejudices that they bring with them. For example, in a recent college basketball game, Illinois and Minnesota were locked in a close game, with Illinois up three points late in the game. With less than 10 seconds left, a Minnesota player drove into the lane, even though he would need to be fouled and make the basket to have a chance to tie the game. As luck would have it, the referees called a foul on Illinois’s best player, Meyers Leonard, as the Minnesota player converted the bucket. This foul was especially crucial, as it was Leonard’s fifth, and therefore disqualified him from the rest of the game, including the soon-to-come overtime period. However, immediately this foul was the subject of heated debate online by Illinois fans, Minnesota fans, and neutral observers. Some fans saw it one way and some saw it the other. Quite tellingly, on a Illinois sports message board, a pair of the fans, reviewing a photo of the foul, came to the following pair of conclusions:

So one fan saw it as a foul, and another didn’t see it as a foul, even though they were looking at the exact same picture and presumably were both watching the game in real time. Whoever is right is actually inconsequential for our purposes; rather, it is purely interesting that these two fans came to opposite conclusions on what is the same evidence. However, as Hastorf and Cantril, and other social psychologists have noted after them, these fans may not have really been seeing the seem evidence in a way. Since we construct our own realities, and these realities are affected by our past experiences, our group affiliations, our biases, and a whole host of other factors, what information we might actually make a judgment on may differ wildly from person to person. However, considering that, why would two fans of the same team come to different conclusions, as in our example? Well, to posit one explanation, the fan who thought it was a foul might be invested in the Illinois basketball team, and he saw this game as unfairly taken away from the team by the referees, who may have called Leonard for a borderline foul in a crucial moment. And perhaps the other fan, who did not think it was a foul, thinks of himself as a more “impartial” fan, is making up for what he perceives as the other fan’s bias favoring Illinois, and takes it upon himself to set the record straight. Now, if we read further in the forum, we find that the rhetoric between these two fans, and others who join either side of the argument about the foul, escalates, as the two are both expressing disbelief that the other is actually looking at the right picture of the foul. And in that point, in an anecdotal sense, is modern evidence for what Hastorf and Cantril saw in the 1950s with Dartmouth and Princeton fans.


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