Social Comparison and Illusions of Invulnerability to Negative Life Events

  • Linda S. Perloff
Part of the The Plenum Series on Stress and Coping book series (SSSO)


Nonvictims, individuals who have not been victimized by undesirable life events, often underestimate their own personal vulnerability to victimization relative to other people’s vulnerability. In other words, non-victims appear to have an illusion of unique invulnerability, in which they see themselves as less vulnerable to victimization than they see most other people (Perloff, 1983). This biased perception is reflected in the common saying, “It won’t happen to me,” a statement that generally implies that it will instead happen to others. Although many studies have demonstrated the existence of these illusions, we still know relatively little about the underlying causal mechanisms or the behavioral consequences of harboring these misperceptions. Past evidence suggests that people who feel invulnerable to victimization are less likely to engage in precautionary behaviors than are people who feel vulnerable (Becker, 1974; Haefner & Kirscht, 1970; Tyler, 1980). Thus, illusions of invulnerability may be dangerous insofar as they discourage adequate self-protective, preventive behavior (cf. Weinstein, 1980).


Heart Attack Close Friend Social Comparison Average Person Negative Life Event 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Abramson, L. Y., Seligman, M. E. P., & Teasdale, J. D. (1978). Learned helplessness in humans: Critique and reformulation. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87, 49–74.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Becker, M. H. (Ed.). (1974). The Health Belief Model and personal health behavior. Thorofare, NJ: Charles B. Slack.Google Scholar
  3. Burger, J. M. (1981). Motivational biases in the attribution of responsibility for an accident: A meta-analysis of the defensive-attribution hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 90, 496–512.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Cantor, N., & Mischel, W. (1977). Traits as prototypes: Effects on recognition memory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 38–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Coates, D., & Winston, W. (1983). Counteracting the deviance of depression: Peer support groups for victims. Journal of Social Issues, 39(2), 171–196.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Coates, D., & Wortman, C. B. (1980). Depression maintenance and interpersonal control. In A. Baum & J. E. Singer (Eds.), Advances in environmental psychology: Applications of personal control (Vol. 2, pp. 149–182). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  7. Coates, D., Wortman, C. B., & Abbey, A. (1979). Reactions to victims. In I. H. Frieze, D. Bar-Tal, & J. S. Carroll (Eds.), New approaches to social problems (pp. 21–52). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  8. Cottrell, N. B., & Epley, S. W. (1977). Affiliation, social comparison, and socially mediated stress reduction. In J. M. Suls & R. L. Miller (Eds.), Social comparison processes (pp. 43–68). Washington, DC: Hemisphere.Google Scholar
  9. Darley, J. M., & Aronson, E. (1966). Self-evaluation vs. direct anxiety reduction as determinants of the fear-affiliation relationship. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Supplement 1, 66–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Dubow, F., McCabe, E., & Kaplan, G. (1978). Reactions to crime: A critical review of the literature. Unpublished manuscript, Center for Urban Affairs, Northwestern University.Google Scholar
  11. Ennis, P. H. (1967). Criminal victimization in the United States: A report of a national survey. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.Google Scholar
  12. Felton, B., & Kahana, E. (1974). Adjustment and situationally-bound locus of control among institutionalized aged. Journal of Gerontology, 29, 295–301.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7, 117–140.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Fink, R., Shapiro, S., & Roester, R. (1972). Impact of efforts to increase participation in repetitive screenings for early breast cancer detection. American Journal of Public Health, 62, 328–336.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Gallup Report, (1981; March). “Most favor 55 mph limit but few obey.” Report No. 186.Google Scholar
  16. Glass, D. C., & Singer, J. E. (1972). Urban stress. New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  17. Haefner, D., & Kirscht, J. P. (1970). Motivational and behavioral effects of modifying health beliefs. Public Health Reports, 85, 478–484.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Harris, D. M., & Guten, S. (1979). Health-protective behavior: An exploratory study. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 20, 17–29.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Higgins, E. T., Rholes, W. S., & Jones, C. R. (1977). Category accessibility and impression formation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 141–154.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Hindelang, M. J., Gottfredson, M. R., & Garofalo, J. (1978). Victims of personal crime. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger.Google Scholar
  21. Janis, I. L. (1958). Psychological stress. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  22. Janoff-Bulman, R., & Brickman, P. (1982). Expectations and what people learn from failure. In N. T. Feather (Ed.), Expectations and actions (pp. 207–237). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  23. Janoff-Bulman, R., & Golden, D. (1984). Attributions and adjustment to abortion. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, Toronto.Google Scholar
  24. Janoff-Bulman, R., & Lang-Gunn, L. (in press). Coping with disease and accidents: The role of self-blame attributions. In L. Y. Abramson (Ed.), Social-personal inference in clinical psychology. New York: Guilford.Google Scholar
  25. Janoff-Bulman, R., & Marshall, G. (1982). Mortality, well-being, and control: A study of an aged population of institutionalized elderly. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 8, 691–698.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Johnson, J., & Leventhal, H. (1974). Effects of accurate expectations and behavioral instructions on reactions during a noxious medical examination. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 29, 710–718.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1973). On the psychology of prediction. Psychological Review, 80, 237–251.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Kegeles, S. S. (1963). Some motives for seeking preventive dental care. Journal of the American Dental Association, 67, 90–98.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Kirscht, J. F., Haefner, D. P., Kegeles, S. S., & Rosenstock, I. M. (1966). A national study of health beliefs. Journal of Health and Human Behavior, 7, 248–254.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Knopf, A. (1976). Changes in women’s opinions about cancer. Social Science and Medicine, 10, 191–195.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Kubler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. New York: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  32. Kunreuther, H. (1979). The changing societal consequences of risks from natural hazards. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 443, 104–116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Lang, L. (1980). Sickness as sin: Observers’ perceptions of the physically ill. Unpublished manuscript, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.Google Scholar
  34. Langer, E. (1975). The illusion of control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 311–328.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Larwood, L. (1978). Swine flu: A field study of self-serving biases. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 18, 283–289.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. LeJeune, R., & Alex, N. (1973). On being mugged: The event and its aftermath. Urban Life and Culture, 2, 259–287.Google Scholar
  37. Lerner, M. J. (1980). The belief in a just world: A fundamental delusion. New York: Plenum Press.Google Scholar
  38. Lerner, M. J., & Miller, D. T. (1978). Just world research and the attribution process: Looking back and ahead. Psychological Bulletin, 85, 1030–1051.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Myers, D. G., & Ridl, J. (1979). Can we all be better than average?. Psychology Today, 13, 89–98.Google Scholar
  40. Perloff, L. S. (1982). Nonvictims’ judgments of unique and universal vulnerability to future misfortune. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.Google Scholar
  41. Perloff, L. S. (1983). Perceptions of vulnerability to victimization, Journal of Social Issues, 39, 41–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Perloff, L. S., & Brickman, P. (1982). False consensus and false uniqueness: Biases in perceptions of similarity. Academic Psychology Bulletin, 4, 475–494.Google Scholar
  43. Perloff, L. S., & Bryant, F. B. (1985, August). Effects of temporal perspective on false consensus and false uniqueness. Paper presented at the American Psychological Association meeting, Los Angeles, CA.Google Scholar
  44. Perloff, L. S., & Farbisz, R. (1985, May). Perceptions of uniqueness and illusions of invulnerability to divorce. Paper presented at the Midwestern Psychological Association meeting, Chicago, IL.Google Scholar
  45. Perloff, L. S., & Fetzer, B. K. (1986). Self-other judgments and perceived vulnerability to victimization. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 502–510.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Perloff, L. S., Bryant, F. B., & Davidson, L. (1986, August). Nonvictims’ beliefs about coping with victimization. Paper presented at the American Psychological Association meeting, Washington, DC.Google Scholar
  47. Robertson, L. S. (1977). Car crashes: Perceived vulnerability and willingness to pay for crash protection. Journal of Community Health, 3, 136–141.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Rothbaum, F., Weisz, J. R., & Snyder, S. S. (1982). Changing the world and changing the self: A two-process model of perceived control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42, 5–37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Schachter, S. (1959). The psychology of affiliation. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  50. Scheppele, K. L., & Bart, P. B. (1983). Through women’s eyes: Defining danger in the wake of sexual assault. Journal of Social Issues, 39(2), 63–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Schlenker, B. R., & Miller, R. S. (1977). Egocentrism in groups: Self-serving biases or logical information processing?. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 755–764.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Schriber, J. B., Larwood, L., & Peterson, J. L. (1985). Bias in the attribution of marital conflict. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 47, 1–5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Schulz, R. (1976). Effects of control and predictability on the physical and psychological well-being of the institutionalized aged. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 33, 563–573.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Helplessness: On depression, development, and death. San Francisco, CA: Freeman.Google Scholar
  55. Silver, R. L., & Wortman, C. B. (1980). Coping with undesirable life events. In J. Garber and M. E. P. Seligman (Eds.), Human helplessness: Theory and application (279–340). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  56. Skogan, W. G. & Maxfield, M. G. (1981). Coping with crime. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  57. Slovic, P., Fischhoff, B., & Lichtenstein, S. (1976). Cognitive processes and societal risk taking. In J. S. Carroll & J. W. Payne (Eds.), Cognition and social behavior (pp. 165–184). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  58. Slovic, P., Fischhoff, B., & Lichtenstein, S. (1978). Accident probabilities and seat belt usage: A psychological perspective. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 10, 281–285.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Snyder, C. R. (1978). The “illusion” of uniqueness. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 18, 33–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Suls, J., & Becker, M. (1980). Fake consensus and the perceptions of others’ fears: “I’m afraid, you’re afraid.” Unpublished manuscript, State University of New York at Albany.Google Scholar
  61. Svenson, O. (1981). Are we all less risky and more skillful than our fellow drivers?. Acta Psychologica, 47, 143–148.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Taylor, S. E. (1979). Hospital patient behavior: Reactance, helplessness, or control?. Journal of Social Issues, 35, 156–184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Taylor, S. E., Wood, J. V., & Lichtman, R. R. (1983). It could be worse: Selective evaluation as a response to victimization. Journal of Social Issues, 39, 19–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Tversky, A. (1977). Features of similarity. Psychological Review, 84, 327–352.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Tyler, T. R. (1980). Impact of directly and indirectly experienced events: The origin of crime-related judgments and behaviors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 13–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Walster, E. (1966). Assignment of responsibility for an accident. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3, 73–79.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Weinstein, N. D. (1977, August). Coping with environmental hazards: Reactions to the threat of crime. Paper presented at the American Psychological Association Convention, San Francisco.Google Scholar
  68. Weinstein, N. D. (1980). Unrealistic optimism about future life events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 806–820.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Weinstein, N. D. (1982). Unrealistic optimism about susceptibility to health problems. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 5, 441–460.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Weinstein, N. D. (1983). Reducing unrealistic optimism about illness susceptibility. Health Psychology, 2, 11–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Weinstein, N. D. (1984). Why it won’t happen to me: Perceptions of risk factors and susceptibility. Health Psychology, 3, 431–457.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Weinstein, N. D., & Lachendro, E. (1982). Egocentrism as a source of unrealistic optimism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 8, 195–200.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Wills, T. A. (1981). Downward comparison principles in social psychology. Psychological Bulletin, 90, 245–271.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Wolfenstein, M. (1957). Disaster: A psychological essay. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.Google Scholar
  75. Wortman, C. B. (1976). Causal attributions and personal control. In J. H. Harvey, W. J. Ickes, & R. F. Kidd (Eds.), New directions in attribution research (Vol. 1). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  76. Wortman, C. B. (1983). Coping with victimization: Conclusions and implications for future research. Journal of Social Issues, 39, 195–221.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Wortman, C. B., & Brehm, J. W. (1975). Responses to uncontrollable outcomes: An integration of reactance theory and the learned helplessness model. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 8, pp. 277–334). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  78. Wortman, C. B., & Dunkel-Schetter, C. (1979). Interpersonal relationships and cancer: A theoretical analysis. Journal of Social Issues, 35, 120–155.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Wylie, R. C. (1979). The self-concept: Theory and research on selected topics. (Vol. 2). Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press.Google Scholar
  80. Zimbardo, P., & Formica, R. (1963). Emotional comparison and self-esteem as determinants of affiliation. Journal of Personality, 31, 141–162.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1987

Authors and Affiliations

  • Linda S. Perloff
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of Illinois at ChicagoChicagoUSA

Personalised recommendations