A social comparison theory analysis of group composition and efficacy of cancer support group programs

Cindy L. Carmack Taylor*, James Kulik, Hoda Badr, Murray Smith, Karen Basen-Engquist, Frank Penedo, Ellen R. Gritz

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


Group-based psychosocial programs provide an effective forum for improving mood and social support for cancer patients. Because some studies show more benefit for patients with initially high psychosocial distress, and little or no benefit for patients with initially low distress, support programs may better address patient needs by only including distressed patients. However, distressed patients may benefit particularly from the presence of nondistressed patients who model effective coping, an idea many researchers and extensions of social comparison theory support. We present a theoretical analysis, based on a social comparison perspective, of how group composition (heterogeneous group of distressed and nondistressed patients versus homogeneous group of distressed patients) may affect the efficacy of cancer support programs. We propose that a heterogeneous group allows distressed patients maximal opportunity for the various social comparison activities they are likely to prefer; a homogeneous group does not. Though the presence of nondistressed patients in a heterogeneous group potentially benefits distressed patients, the benefits for nondistressed patients are unclear. For nondistressed patients, heterogeneous groups may provide limited opportunities for preferred social comparison activity and may create the possibility for no benefit or even negative effects on quality of life. We also discuss ethical issues with enrolling nondistressed patients whose presence may help others, but whose likelihood of personal benefit is questionable.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)262-273
Number of pages12
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jul 2007


  • Psychological distress
  • Social comparison theory
  • Theoretical evaluation of cancer support groups

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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