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JMIR Human Factors




BACKGROUND: Innovative approaches are needed to understand barriers to and facilitators of physical activity among insufficiently active adults. Although social comparison processes (ie, self-evaluations relative to others) are often used to motivate physical activity in digital environments, user preferences and responses to comparison information are poorly understood.

OBJECTIVE: We used an iterative approach to better understand users' selection of comparison targets, how they interacted with their selected targets, and how they responded to these targets.

METHODS: Across 3 studies, different samples of insufficiently active college students used the Fitbit system (Fitbit LLC) to track their steps per day as well as a separate, adaptive web platform each day for 7 to 9 days (N=112). The adaptive platform was designed with different layouts for each study; each allowed participants to select their preferred comparison target from various sets of options, view the desired amount of information about their selected target, and rate their physical activity motivation before and after viewing information about their selected target. Targets were presented as achieving physical activity at various levels below and above their own, which were accessed via the Fitbit system each day. We examined the types of comparison target selections, time spent viewing and number of elements viewed for each type of target, and day-level associations between comparison selections and physical activity outcomes (motivation and behavior).

RESULTS: Study 1 (n=5) demonstrated that the new web platform could be used as intended and that participants' interactions with the platform (ie, the type of target selected, the time spent viewing the selected target's profile, and the number of profile elements viewed) varied across the days. Studies 2 (n=53) and 3 (n=54) replicated these findings; in both studies, age was positively associated with time spent viewing the selected target's profile and the number of profile elements viewed. Across all studies, upward targets (who had more steps per day than the participant) were selected more often than downward targets (who had fewer steps per day than the participant), although only a subset of either type of target selection was associated with benefits for physical activity motivation or behavior.

CONCLUSIONS: Capturing physical activity-based social comparison preferences is feasible in an adaptive digital environment, and day-to-day differences in preferences for social comparison targets are associated with day-to-day changes in physical activity motivation and behavior. Findings show that participants only sometimes focus on the comparison opportunities that support their physical activity motivation or behavior, which helps explain previous, equivocal findings regarding the benefits of physical activity-based comparisons. Additional investigation of day-level determinants of comparison selections and responses is needed to fully understand how best to harness comparison processes in digital tools to promote physical activity.


©Danielle Arigo, Robert C Gray, Diane H Dallal, Jennifer Villareale, Jichen Zhu. Originally published in JMIR Human Factors (, 27.02.2023.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License.

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.