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Effects of employees' social comparison behaviors on distributive justice perception and job satisfaction.

When people seek out external referents to evaluate their opinions or abilities because they feel that object information or standards are insufficient to reduce self-uncertainty, this is referred to as social comparison (Festinger, 1954). Likewise, many people in organizations habitually engage in social comparisons in order to obtain and process information in an efficient way and make sense of situations (Dunn, Ruedy, & Schweitzer, 2012). Although social comparison phenomena are ubiquitous (Suls & Wheeler, 2012), research on the factors that influence social comparison at work and its outcomes is relatively scarce. Few scholars have explored employees' social comparison behaviors in organizations as an important form of social influence (e.g., Brown, Ferris, Heller, & Keeping, 2007; Chaudhry & Song, 2014).

In this study, our aim was to extend the extant social comparison literature. First, unlike previous studies, in which researchers examined either social comparisons generally or social comparisons in the context of the workplace without bridging those two areas (e.g., Chaudhry & Song, 2014; Khan, Quratulain, & Bell, 2014), we empirically examined extensive and various dimensions of social comparison.

Second, we investigated the interactional effects of frequency and direction of social comparison on work outcomes. Some people are more interested than others are in comparative information and, thus, typically engage more frequently in social comparisons (Gibbons & Buunk, 1999). It has been widely documented that social comparison occurs in two different directions, comprising up-ward comparison, that is, comparing oneself with those who are better off, and downward comparison, that is, comparing oneself with those who are worse off. Although the focus in most prior empirical studies has been on either comparison orientation or comparison direction (e.g., Buunk, Carmona, Peiro, Dijkstra, & Dijkstra, 2011; Litt, Stock, & Gibbons, 2014), it is important to investigate how these two factors can be used in combination to predict outcome variables.

Third, in relation to the transmission of the effects of social comparison on job satisfaction, we examined the role of distributive justice perception, which is defined as employees' belief about the extent to which the outcomes they receive from the organization reflect their contributions to the organization (Leventhal, 1976). Although some prior researchers have examined how employees' social comparison behaviors are associated with their work attitudes (e.g., Brown et al., 2007; Eddleston, 2009), to the best of our knowledge, none have examined the mechanism of this association.

Hypotheses Development

Antecedents of Social Comparison

People are likely to engage in social comparison when motivated to obtain an accurate and objective evaluation about the self and to enhance their self-image. Therefore, those who believe they understand themselves well and who have a positive self-concept tend to be less interested in comparative information (Dunn et al., 2012). Building on these findings, we hypothesized that employees who have an unfavorable core self-evaluation (CSE)--defined as an individual's basic assessment about his or her value, competence, and abilities (Judge, Locke, & Durham, 1997)--will be more inclined to engage in social comparisons than will those who are confident and certain about themselves. Empirical support for this hypothesis is evident in findings by prior scholars that employees with an unfavorable CSE tend to engage more frequently in social comparisons in work-related domains (Brown et al., 2007). Therefore, similarly, we argued that employees with an unfavorable CSE would more frequently compare themselves with others in regard to various social dimensions.

As already described, in this study, our approach was to examine social comparison in two different areas, that is, work-related social comparison (WRSC) and work-unrelated social comparison (WUSC). In daily life, people engage in social comparisons in an almost unlimited number of various dimensions. Thus, employees in organizations may compare themselves with others in terms of diverse areas that are not necessarily associated with their work. Through their daily social interactions, they may, for example, compare their ability to perform in sports or their state of well-being with the ability or state of their colleagues. Likewise, employees are also likely to obtain information about their job characteristics, such as working conditions or organizational inducements, by relying on social comparison with their colleagues. These employees will, therefore, engage in social comparison with respect to work-related dimensions that are directly relevant to job characteristics as well as dimensions that are unrelated to their work. Taking all these factors into account, we argued that those employees with a strong and positive self-concept would be less interested than those with a less positive self-image would be in comparative information, regardless of the comparison dimensions. Thus, we formed the following hypothesis:

Hypothesis 1: Employees whose core self-evaluation is highly favorable will be less likely to engage in both (a) work-related and (b) work-unrelated social comparisons.

In addition to CSE, we posited that employees who are keenly interested in achieving at a high level and outperforming others will frequently engage in social comparison. It has been acknowledged that some individuals have a stronger desire than other people do to perform well relative to others--a personality variable labeled performance approach (Elliot & McGregor, 2001). People with strong performance approach are likely to set performance-oriented goals (e.g., outperforming peers) and this tendency has been linked to a fear of failure and uncertainty about one's competence (Elliot & Church, 1997).

One of the basic tenets of social comparison theory is that individuals engage in social comparison because of their feelings of uncertainty about themselves (Festinger, 1954). Therefore, we predicted that employees with a strong performance approach would engage in WRSC more frequently than others would, in order to evaluate their performance relative to those others in terms of various dimensions associated with job and working conditions. Furthermore, we also expected that employees with a strong performance approach would engage in WUSC because of their general tendency to focus on comparative information and standards. Empirical support for this expectation can be found in prior studies in the field of educational psychology, in which researchers reported that students who have a strong performance approach frequently tend to rely on social comparison standards to evaluate how they are doing at school (Regner, Escribe, & Dupeyrat, 2007). Thus, we formed the following hypothesis:

Hypothesis 2: Employees with a strong performance approach will be more likely to engage in both (a) work-related and (b) work-unrelated social comparisons.

Consequences of Social Comparison

In this study, one of our objectives was to examine how employees' engagement in social comparisons influences their judgment about the degree of fairness with which organizational outcomes are distributed within their workplace. Among various justice domains, we focused on distributive justice because the specific work-related dimensions of social comparison we examined in this paper (e.g., benefits, salary, and working condition) are closely related to distributive outcomes. We posited that employees who frequently engaged in social comparisons would be likely to perceive a situation as unfair. This tendency can be accounted for by the self-serving bias, as individuals give greater weight to their own inputs (e.g., performance) and less weight to others' inputs (Babcock & Loewenstein, 1997). People with a strong social comparison orientation are likely to evaluate justice by focusing heavily on comparative information from others, rather than making an objective calculation of the level of their own input relative to their own outcome. To an outside observer, it seems that those who engage in social comparisons when evaluating distributive justice seek more than their fair share because of their perception that their input is more valuable than others' input. Hence, the more an individual engages in WRSC when evaluating organizational fairness, the more will self-serving biases occur, thereby causing the individual to perceive distributive injustice. However, WUSC may not be relevant to distributive justice as those work-unrelated dimensions are less likely to be considered as aspects relevant to assessing distributive justice. Therefore, we formed the following hypothesis:

Hypothesis 3: Employees' work-related social comparisons will be negatively related to their perception of distributive justice.

We reasoned that employees who are oriented to engage in social comparisons at work--whether or not the social comparison is relevant to their work--will have low levels of job satisfaction. In prior studies, researchers have suggested that frequent use of social comparison can lead to a lack of well-being and to negative state emotions, most likely because people generally tend to view social comparisons as socially undesirable (Gibbons & Buunk, 1999; Smith, Pettigrew, Pippin, & Bialosiewicz, 2012). The extent to which an employee is satisfied with his or her job is affected not only by organizational factors but also by psychological processes, such as social comparisons and emotion states (Brown et al., 2007; Eddleston, 2009). Thus, we predicted that employees who frequently seek out comparative information would be less likely to be satisfied with their job, regardless of the comparison dimensions. Therefore, we formed the following hypothesis:

Hypothesis 4: (a) Work-related and (b) work-unrelated social comparisons will be negatively related with job satisfaction.

In addition to employees' general frequency of making social comparisons, we further argued that work-related social comparison direction (WRSCD) and work-unrelated social comparison direction (WUSCD) would have implications for employees' work attitudes by moderating the negative linkages between WRSC and perception of distributive justice. In this study, high WRSCD or WUSCD indicates a downward direction tendency and low WRSCD or WUSCD means an upward tendency (see procedure section below). According to the referent cognitions theory (Folger, 1986), individuals compare what has actually happened with what might have happened from their own point of view. One of the cognitive factors involved in the formation of distributive justice perception is a referent outcome, which refers to other imagined outcomes or other people's outcomes. If the focal individual frequently engages in social comparisons relative to who is better off in terms of work-related aspects, he or she would perceive even less distributive justice because of cognitive calculation, as proposed in the referent cognitions theory. In contrast, although those who frequently engage in WRSC are more prone to overestimating the value of their input while underestimating that of others because of self-serving bias, if these people observe that others are even worse off than they, themselves, are, this observation will lead them to be more satisfied with the outcome in terms of their perception of its distributive justice.

In regard to the moderating influence of comparison directions on job satisfaction, we argued that WRSCD might also reduce the negativity of the relationship between WRSC and job satisfaction. According to prior theorizing and findings, downward social comparison is related to self-enhancement and temporarily increased subjective well-being, whereas upward comparison is likely to trigger negative emotions, such as anger and resentment (see, for a review, Yip & Kelly, 2013). Extending these findings, we argued that downward comparison would significantly mitigate the detrimental effects of frequent WRSC on job satisfaction.

We expected that the moderating effect of comparison direction on job satisfaction would also hold for WUSC. Unlike perception of distributive justice, job satisfaction is known to closely reflect employees' emotion states and affective experiences (Williams & Hazer, 1986). Therefore, emotion states triggered by WUSC and its direction would influence employees' degree of job satisfaction, although comparison dimensions are not directly related to the job. As such, the negative association between WUSC and job satisfaction would be weakened by WUSCD. In line with this reasoning, we formed the following hypotheses:

Hypothesis 5: The relationships (a) between work-related social comparisons and distributive justice and (b) between work-related social comparisons and job satisfaction will be negatively moderated by work-related social comparison direction.

Hypothesis 6: The relationship between work-unrelated social comparisons and job satisfaction will be negatively moderated by work-unrelated social comparison direction.

Last, we predicted that perception of distributive justice would mediate the effects of WRSC on job satisfaction. Various scholars have suggested that fairness judgments play a role in predicting people's work attitudes and behaviors (e.g., Colquitt, Conlon, Wesson, Porter, & Ng, 2001). We predicted that employees who frequently engage in WRSC would be less likely to feel satisfied with their job mostly because of their perception of injustice. Indeed, prior researchers have found that employees' distributive justice perception is closely associated with their satisfaction with their job and the level of pay they receive (Ang, Dyne, & Begley, 2003). Hence, we expected that the effects of WRSC on job satisfaction would be significantly and indirectly transmitted by employees' perception of distributive justice. In contrast, the relationship between WUSC and job satisfaction would not be mediated by distributive justice perception, because employees' assessment of distributive justice is less likely to be based on aspects irrelevant to work.

Hypothesis 7: The relationship between work-related social comparisons and job satisfaction will be mediated by distributive justice perception.



To recruit participants, we contacted alumni of a liberal arts department at a large university in Seoul, who had recently graduated and were working for various organizations in South Korea. They explained the purpose of this study to their organizational representatives and obtained their agreement to participate. Of these, 500 full-time employees of 23 different organizations from various industries (e.g., information technology, manufacturing, and finance) participated in the survey. We obtained developmental feedback on their work attitudes (as a collective) as a means of generating their interest in participating. Potential respondents were given a survey package, in which the study purpose was explained on the front page along with a statement that their responses would be treated with confidentiality. From this group, 433 returned the survey, yielding an 87% response rate, and we analyzed data from 403 respondents after removing forms with incomplete data. The sample comprised 59% men and 41% women, 3% of whom were aged under 25 years, 36% between 25 and 30, 21% between 30 and 35, 25% between 35 and 40, 7% between 40 and 45, and 8% were aged over 45.


Unless otherwise noted, survey items were rated on a 5-point Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree). Because the respondents were Korean, we translated all survey items into Korean and followed the back-translation procedures suggested by Brislin (1981) to assess item reliability and validity. CSE was measured with 12 items developed by Judge, Erez, Bono, and Thoresen (2003). Performance approach was assessed with three items developed by Elliot and McGregor (2001). Distributive justice perception was assessed with five items from the Organizational Justice Scale (Price & Mueller, 1986). Job satisfaction was measured using five items from the scale of Brayfield and Rothe (1951). WRSC was measured with eight items used by Brown et al. (2007), to assess performance, working conditions, quality of supervision, quality of coworkers, career progression, benefits, prestige, and salary. These items were rated on a 6-point Likert scale (1 = virtually never, 6 = several times a day). Assessment of WUSC included items on attractiveness, intelligence, wealth, physical fitness, and good personality that were developed by White, Langer, Yariv, and Welch (2006). For both WRSCD and WUSCD, respondents were asked to assess how comparable they were to the target in each dimension, based on a 7-point scale ranging from inferior (-3) to superior (+3) that was developed by Wheeler and Miyake (1992). The scores were coded with positive numbers only for the analyses, ranging from 1 (upward comparison) to 7 (downward comparison).

Finally, as control variables, participants' overall positive affect state was assessed using the Positive and Negative Affect Scale (Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1988). We chose this variable because previous researchers have suggested that generic moods are related to social comparison orientation (Gibbons & Buunk, 1999). Gender and age were also controlled because previous researchers have reported finding that these demographic variables are related to social comparison behaviors (Brown et al, 2007; Buunk et al., 2011).


Given that 403 individuals were nested within 23 organizations, we tested our hypotheses using hierarchical linear modeling by centering variable scores relative to the means of the group sample.

As shown in Models 1 and 2 in Table 1, we found that CSE was negatively associated with both WRSC and WUSC, whereas performance approach was positively associated with WRSC and WUSC. Thus, H1a, H1b, H2a, and H2b were supported. Next, we found that there were negative relationships between WRSC and both distributive justice perception (Model 3) and job satisfaction (Model 5). In contrast, we did not find any significant relationship between WUSC and job satisfaction (Model 5). Therefore, H3 and H4a were supported but H4b was not. We next found that the interaction effect between WRSC and WRSCD was significant on distributive justice perception (Model 4) but not on job satisfaction (Model 6). The interaction effect between WUSC and WUSCD was also significant (Model 6). Thus, H5a and H6 were supported but H5b was not. Regarding the interaction patterns, as shown in Figure 1, there was a generally negative relationship between WRSC and distributive justice perception, and this tendency was stronger for high, rather than low, WRSCD.

Furthermore, as shown in Figure 2, a strong positive relationship was revealed between WUSC and job satisfaction for those who tend to rely on upward comparison (low WUSCD) rather than downward comparison (high WUSCD). Therefore, even though we found significant moderating effects of comparison directions on the relationships between comparison frequency and outcome variables, the patterns of the interactions were somewhat different from our predictions. In order to test H7, we examined the four conditions for mediation suggested by Shrout and Bolger (2002). We first examined the relationship between WRSC and distributive justice perception, which was significant (Model 3). Second, we found a significant relationship between distributive justice perception and job satisfaction in the presence of WRSC (Model 7). Third, we conducted parametric bootstrapping to examine the indirect effects carried by distributive justice perception for the linkage between WRSC and job satisfaction, which was different from zero (-.03; 95% CI [-.06, -.01]). Fourth, the relationship between WRSC and job satisfaction was not significant in the presence of distributive justice perception (Model 7). Thus, H7 was supported.


We have made four important contributions to the social behavior and organizational psychology literature. First, we have contributed to the social comparison literature by examining both WRSC and WUSC dimensions within a single study in a workplace setting. Our findings indicated that feelings of uncertainty about the self, and a desire to outperform others motivate individuals to seek comparative information in a wide range of areas. What we found more interesting was that WRSC and WUSC were differentially related to work outcomes. Although WRSC was related to both perception of distributive justice and job satisfaction, WUSC was related to job satisfaction only for people who tended to engage in upward comparisons. These results suggest that comparative information determines employees' perception about distributive justice only when the information is directly associated with work. In contrast, job satisfaction was found to be shaped not only by work-related experiences but also by everyday life experiences, because frequent social comparison itself can lead to a decrease in favorable affective experiences at work even when the comparison is not associated with the individual's job.

Second, inconsistent with our prediction, our results indicated that the negative relationship between WRSC and distributive justice was stronger for those who tended to engage in downward comparison. This may be attributable to the assimilation effect of social comparison; that is, consequences of social comparison depend on the similarity with the comparison target (Mussweiler, 2003), in that people tend to identify themselves with the target when they perceive that they have attributes in common with that target. Employees who are working in the same organization tend to share much in common, such as organizational culture, the set of coworkers, and knowledge on similar domains. By identifying with worse-off colleagues, employees may feel they might be subjected to similar treatment to those colleagues, whom they may perceive to be undeserving. Thus, our reasoning was that the negative effects of WRSC on distributive justice perception are amplified when employees look at how worse-off colleagues are treated in work-related domains.

Third, our findings showed that WRSC was negatively related to job satisfaction but, for WUSC, the relationship with job satisfaction was not negative. As job satisfaction is closely associated with employees' emotional experiences and feelings about their work, frequent WRSC directly and strongly reduces their job satisfaction. However, we also found that frequent WUSC could increase employees' job satisfaction if the comparison was upward. Employees who observe that other employees are better off then they themselves are in terms of various work-unrelated areas, may feel that they will end up being like those comparison targets because of the assimilation effect. This feeling of self-enhancement may promote their satisfaction level and enhance their emotional state at work.

Last, our findings revealed an important role for perception of distributive justice in transmitting the effect of WRSC on job satisfaction. Even though WRSC directly influenced job satisfaction to some degree, we found that a significant degree of variance in job satisfaction was indirectly accounted for by a decrease in the level of distributive justice perceived by the employees. Engaging in WRSC can, of itself, reduce satisfaction through a decrease in the level of perceived distributive justice, with this decrease being attributable to self-serving bias.

Limitations and Future Research Suggestions

One limitation in our study is the lack of a systematic examination of social comparison dimensions, which future researchers could address by developing a more definite boundary between WRSC and WUSC. Second, given the prior findings regarding the effects of other justice types on employee work attitudes (Colquitt et al., 2001), we believe that it would be fruitful to examine procedural and interactional justice, for example, as consequences of social comparison. Third, our data were collected using a cross-sectional survey from a single source. We recommend that future researchers obtain data from multiple sources at multiple points in time to conduct a more rigorous examination of the causal relationships among the variables.


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Sungkyunkwan University


Yonsei University

Jiseon Shin, Department of Global Business Administration, School of Business, Sungkyunkwan University; Young Woo Sohn, Department of Psychology, Yonsei University.

This study was supported by the Samsung Research Fund, Sungkyunkwan University, awarded to the first author in 2014.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: Jiseon Shin, Department of Global Business Administration, School of Business, Sungkyunkwan University, Sungkyunkwan-ro 25-2, Jongno-gu, Seoul 110-745, Republic of Korea. Email:

Table 1. The Antecedents and Consequences of Social
Comparison Frequency

                              WRSC                WUSC

                             Model 1             Model 2

                         [gamma]     SE      [gamma]     SE

Positive affect (b)     .17*        .06     .25 **      .07
Gender (b)              -.14        .09     -.08        .10
Age (b)                 -.06        .05     -.03        .05
CSE (c)                 -.44 ***    .06     -.55 ***    .09
Performance approach    .25 ***     .06     .16 **      .06
WRSC (c)
WUSC (c)
  justice perception

                           Distributive justice perception

                             Model 3             Model 4

                         [gamma]     SE      [gamma]     SE

Positive affect (b)     .30 ***     .03     .29 ***     .03
Gender (b)              .08         .06     .07         .07
Age (b)                 .00         .01     -.02        .04
CSE (c)                 .08         .10     .03         .10
Performance approach    -.04        .07     -.03        .06
WRSC (c)                -.11 *      .04     .13         .14
WUSC (c)
WRSCD (c)                                   .24 **      .08
WRSC x WRSCD (c)                            -.06 *      .03
  justice perception

                                  Job satisfaction

                             Model 5            Model 6

                         [gamma]     SE      [gamma]     SE

Positive affect (b)     .56 ***     .06     .57 **      .07
Gender (b)              .14 *       .06     .14 *       .07
Age (b)                 .07 *       .04     .06         .03
CSE (c)                 .38 ***     .07     .35 ***     .07
Performance approach    .09         .06     .11         .07
WRSC (c)                -.17 *      .08     -.17        .18
WUSC (c)                                    .09         .08
WRSCD (c)                                   .09         .13
WUSCD (c)                                   .18         .12
WRSC x WRSCD (c)                            .01         .04
WUSC x WUSCD (c)                            -.11 **     .04
  justice perception

                         Job satisfaction

                             Model 7

                         [gamma]     SE

Positive affect (b)     .49 ***     .07
Gender (b)              .12 *       .05
Age (b)                 .08 **      .03
CSE (c)                 .34 ***     .08
Performance approach    .49 ***     .07
WRSC (c)                -.06        .05
WUSC (c)                .57 **      .20
Distributive            .28 ***     .04
  justice perception

Note. (a) Unstandardized coefficients. (b) Control variable.
(c) CSE = core self-evaluation; WRSC = work-related social
comparison; WUSC = work-unrelated social comparison;
WRSCD = work-related social comparison direction;
WUSCD = work-unrelated social comparison direction.

* p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001.
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Author:Shin, Jiseon; Sohn, Young Woo
Publication:Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal
Article Type:Report
Date:Aug 1, 2015
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