Comparison types and the physical self in older adulthood

Kimberly Sue Hurley, Purdue University


Older adulthood can be accompanied by physical changes reflecting decline. How older individuals perceive these changes is of particular interest since physical self-perceptions have been associated with psychological well-being and behavior (McAuley, 2000; Menec & Chipperfield, 1997). Information sources that older adults utilize in order to form perceptions of their physical self are comparisons with others (social) or with themselves from a previous time (temporal). Theoretical perspectives on these comparisons propose that they have different ramifications for feelings of well-being (Albert, 1977; Festinger, 1954) especially for older individuals (Suls & Mullen, 1982, 1983-84). Greater utilization of downward social comparisons (DSC, comparing with less fortunate others) relates to positive affect whereas upward social comparisons (USC, comparing with superior others) and/or downward temporal comparisons (TC, comparing with a previous self) relate to negative affect. The purposes of this study were to (a) examine relationships between physical self-perceptions and comparison types and (b) examine physical self-worth as a mediator between comparison types and well-being indices. It was hypothesized that higher physical self-perceptions would associate with greater tendencies toward DSC and lower tendency to engage in USC or TC. It was also hypothesized that physical self-worth would mediate the relationships between comparison types and well-being indices. Older adults residing in independent living communities (N = 208), ages 65 to 103 years (M = 82.3, SD = 7.8), completed reliable and valid measures of comparison type utilization, physical self-perceptions, depressed affect, life satisfaction, global self-esteem, and physical activity. Results generally aligned with theoretical expectations and partially supported the hypotheses. DSC relationships were not in the expected direction, whereas USC and TC relationships were in the expected direction. Hierarchical multiple regression analyses revealed that physical self-worth partially mediated the relationships between comparison types and well-being indices providing partial support for the hypothesized pattern of relationships. Further examination of physical self-worth and self-evaluations that older adults utilize could provide insight to how individuals positively or negatively negotiate the physical changes that accompany older age.




Smith, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Physical education|Gerontology

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