With whom, and about what, do we compare?

Effects of social closeness and relevance of reference groups for positional concerns


  • Ingvild Mageli UiT HHT
  • Andrea Mannberg
  • Eirik Heen




Positional concerns, positional preferences, social identity


We use an experimental approach to test if there is a link between positional preferences and the social closeness and relevance of the reference group. More specifically, we test if people are more positional when they compare with friends and colleagues, than when they compare to an anonymous person in society. We further test if the gender of the members in the reference group is important, and if positional preferences can be linked to an individual’s social identity. To test our hypotheses, we randomize the reference groups across five unique domains – income, work performance, beauty, physical strength and social media popularity. Our results lend support to the hypothesis that social identification with a domain is correlated with positional concerns in that domain. However, in contrast to our hypotheses, we also find that a comparisons with an anonymous person in society trigger positional concerns among a significantly larger share of participants than do comparisons with friends or colleagues. Finally, our results indicate that both the gender of the participant and of the reference group has an effect on positional concerns.