Guest Post: Relative Deprivation, aka The Psychology of First World Problems


By: Dinah Baum

[Note: Being only a newly minted high school graduate who has yet to know the ‘real world’, the examples given will be mostly school related. Exactly what you want to read about during the summer, I know.]

It’s second semester senior year, and university admissions decisions are being sent out. I’m absentmindedly checking my email when I notice that Rice University has sent me a notification indicating my admission status has been posted. I eagerly type in my email address and password to see the outcome. It takes less than 10 seconds for me to read “I regret to inform you that….” The sentence doesn’t need finishing. I know I have been rejected.

I suppose I am lucky. I had not developed any emotional attachment to the University, nor did I have a parental alumnus I had to shamefacedly break the news to. Even if I had been accepted, I may not have chosen to attend. Thus, this rejection, while disappointing, did not reduce me to tears or throw me into an existential crisis. And yet…I was still more upset than I should’ve been.

Was it because I’d applied as a history major, my strongest academic subject and still been rejected? Or because I had chosen to drop debate that year, making me look “uncommitted” to the admissions officers? As joyful Facebook posts found their way onto my feed, the answer became clear. I was demoralized not by my own rejection – instead, I was dejected over the acceptance letters many of my friends had received.

[Note: Friends who were accepted/are attending Rice: Those well wishes I gave you were genuine, not just some attempt to not appear bitter. I don’t begrudge you your acceptances at all.]

Enter the concept of relative deprivation. A term coined by sociologist Samuel Stouffer during WWII, it describes the fact that our sense of deprivation (in my case, an acceptance letter) is governed not by absolute position but relative position in relation to others. There’s another catch – we tend to only compare ourselves to those we’re around most often rather than everyone in the world.

At that moment, I was not comparing myself to all the high school seniors across America, or in Texas, or even in my own high school. Intellectually, I understand that many more students were rejected from Rice than accepted. I was in good – and plentiful – company. However, psychologically, emotionally, I was comparing myself not to the students down the hall in regular classes, but to my own group of highly academically competitive friends, and they seemed to be experiencing great success. To expand on this, who was I to be so upset about a simple rejection? I’d already received several acceptances from other good institutions. There are millions of children who will never have the chance at any college education, or even a primary school one. How could I complain when I know there are children in my own city who are attending failing schools, growing up in poverty, and are statistically unlikely to even set foot in a community college, let alone a four year institution? What a first world/privileged problem: “None of the universities that accepted me are prestigious enough!

Relative deprivation is a surprisingly simple concept that has a multitude of implications. For example, Switzerland, Denmark, and Norway have higher suicide rates than China, Vietnam, and Greece. This is in spite of the fact that Switzerland, Denmark, and Norway are ranked as the top 3 happiest countries and (on average) have a better quality of life than China, Vietnam, and Greece. Why are people in the “better” countries committing suicide at higher rates than people in the “worse” countries?

As Malcolm Gladwell put it, “If you are unhappy, but everyone else around you is unhappy too, then you’re actually sort of fine. You don’t feel so bad. On the other hand, if you are unhappy and everyone else is jumping up and down for joy, you are really unhappy – you’re in a very serious place.”

On an ending note, I think I’ll steal one of Mr. Gladwell’s examples of the effects of relative deprivation.

Consider two universities. One is Harvard, the other is Hartwick. Odds are you only know about one of these places. Consider this chart. (I realize the SAT is of dubious value in predicting college performance, however this gives a rough idea of basic math skill.)


STEM majors     Top Third     Middle Third     Bottom Third

Math SAT                753                        674                   581


STEM majors     Top Third     Middle Third     Bottom Third

Math SAT                569                      472                    407

It may surprise you to learn that the percentage of STEM degrees earned by each third is roughly the same. At both Hartwick and Harvard, the top third earn a bit over 50% of the STEM degrees, the middle third earn about 30%, and the lowest third earn about 20%. What these results show is that while math ability certainly matters in obtaining a STEM degree, it’s not the only factor. If that were the case, one would expect almost everyone at Harvard to be earning their STEM degree – the Harvard low scorers are still better than the Hartwick high scorers. Morale, not just math ability, matters – and if you’re the last in your class (even if it is at Harvard) your morale is probably not very high.

Considering I’ll be studying computer science, perhaps my rejection from Rice was a blessing in disguise.

Orthogonal Vectors

Disclaimer: This post is not actually about math.

In physics, vectors that are orthogonal have absolutely no effect on each other. A force acting on an object in the y direction will have no impact on that object in the x direction. (Why? NO ONE KNOWS.)

In math, it’s just as clear: Standalone ideas have no effect on each other at all.

I couldn't find an interesting picture, so I went with the most boring picture I could find. Note the Comic Sans and the 2003 publication date.

I couldn’t find any interesting pictures, so I went with the most boring picture I could find. Note the use of Comic Sans and the 2003 publication date.

So why can’t this same principle be applied to ethical problems? Just like with physics problems,  the individual parts that make up a problem should have no effect on each other.

The Heinz Dilemma

Let’s start with the classic example used in Kohlberg’s theory of moral development:

Heinz’s wife was dying from a particular type of cancer. Doctors said a new drug might save her. The drug had been discovered by a local chemist and the Heinz tried desperately to buy some, but the chemist was charging ten times the money it cost to make the drug and this was much more than the Heinz could afford.

Heinz could only raise half the money, even after help from family and friends. He explained to the chemist that his wife was dying and asked if he could have the drug cheaper or pay the rest of the money later. The chemist refused saying that he had discovered the drug and was going to make money from it. The husband was desperate to save his wife, so later that night he broke into the chemist’s and stole the drug.


The question is, should Heinz have stolen the drug?

Split it up.


Is stealing bad? Yes.

Really bad? Well, going to jail bad. And that’s only if you get caught.

Conclusion: If you steal, you get the medicine and might go to jail.

His wife dying:

Is his wife dying bad? Yes.

Really bad? Yes. (In the sense that virtually everything else in life is reversible.)

Is there anything he can do to help? Yes. Steal the medicine.

Conclusion: His wife dying is really bad, and he can steal the medicine to save her life.

Putting the two vectors together, this is what you get:

Either he steals the medicine and gets caught and goes to jail, or he doesn’t steal the medicine and his wife dies. It’s balancing jail time with his wife’s death. Going to jail is clearly the lesser of two evils here, so the man should steal the medicine and go to jail.

Pretty straightforward right?

A follow up situation:

A policeman on guard sees the man steal the medicine. Should he report him or not?

Before you start being all sympathetic, remember that his wife is dying is on an orthogonal vector to the man going to jail. They should have no impact on each other. If you do something, you pay the consequences. 

So should the policeman report the man? Yes. And the man should steal the drug knowing that he might get caught.

The argument shouldn’t be “I know he stole something, but his wife was dying.” It should be “I know he stole something, and his wife was dying.”  There is no correlation between these two .

When we first did this exercise in my psychology class, my teacher said that in the highest stage of morality, the man should have stolen the drug and then turned himself him. My conclusion was that he should steal the drug knowing that he would get caught. Not quite there, but I’m still proud of myself for getting where I did.

Charlie Hebdo

Now to apply this to current events.

Is killing 12 people bad? Yes. (Same logic– it’s irreversible)

Even if there’s a reason? Yes

Was the reason bad? Not really.

Is offending a specific group of people bad? Sure.

Is free speech good? Sure.

Are they mutually exclusive? (aka can you have free speech without offending people?) Most likely not.

Did the event catch people’s attention? Yes.

In a good way? No.

Did it prove a point? Yes.

Was it the intended point of the attackers? Probably not.

I could keep going about this, (Don’t get me started on Je Suis Charlie), but even just adding up all these vectors, what do you get?

It depends on the magnitude of each individual vector, but you’ll always end up with a multi-dimensional vector. In other words, something complicated. 

I know that’s not a satisfying answer. How are you supposed to feel about this?  Is this just going to be another one “I’m too much of an intellectual to have an opinion about this so I’ll just not say anything.” conclusions?

Yes. And I’m not going to apologize for it. Even as I was writing everything, I had to resist the urge to find a news article that would just tell me what I was supposed to believe about the entire incident. If you’re looking for that, go to your news site of choice.


As always, complicated problems are easier to solve when you look at them through a mathematical perspective, but that’s not always reasonable. Hypothetical situations and faraway current events are easy to analyze, but what about something more personal?

In the case of the Heinz dilemma, a common follow up question is: “Would/Should Heinz have done the same if the sick person was a stranger?” Or what if I was the guy selling the drug? Would I see Heinz’s actions as ethical? In the case of Charlie Hebdo, what if I were French? A Muslim? What if I personally knew one of the editors that was killed? Would that change my views? Heck yeah.

You mean math doesn’t work for everything? Bummer

Once you introduce the personal element, you also could argue that all the vectors aren’t orthogonal. For instance, is the fact that 12 people were killed really not correlated with catching media attention and sparking a social movement? It becomes less clear.

Sometimes I wish that I could treat all the people I know as vectors and keep everyone in their own dimension. It’d make things so much easier to manage. But that’s not how the world works. Inevitably, everyone’s vectors collide into each other at various angles, thanks to something called human nature. How can you be completely objective when your human nature vector keeps crashing into everything unexpectedly?

But frankly, even though it might pay off in the long run to be objective,  I feel like I need the slightest shred of irrationality to justify my existence as a living being. Our tiny deviations from ideal behavior are what define human nature. Otherwise, we’re all just robots following a set of arbitrary rules. Living is a form of art. And just like other forms of art, it’s a virtue to follow the rules, but the real living happens when you break the rules.

Often I think my defiance is just delusional, self-glorifying bullshit that artists have always told themselves to compensate for their poverty and powerlessness. But sometimes I think it’s the only thing that has preserved me intact, and that what has been preserved is not just haughty caprice but in fact the meaning of my life. So this is what I told Mao: In lieu of loving the world twice as hard, I care, in the end, about expressing my obdurate singularity at any cost. I love this hard and unyielding part of myself more than any other reward the world has to offer a newly brightened and ingratiating demeanor, and I will bear any costs associated with it.

Paper Tigers