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

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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.)

Harvard

STEM majors     Top Third     Middle Third     Bottom Third

Math SAT                753                        674                   581

Hartwick

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.

Dealing with inferiority complexes

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A reflection on being un-extraordinary, plus a bit of advice.

I’m a second semester senior.

Let me repeat that again. I’m a second semester senior.

I’m a second semester senior.

I’m free to not care about anything, free to say #yolo to anything and everything. And yet for some reason, I’ve begun caring more and more about certain things. Knowing that I won’t see most of my classmates in a few months means that I should be nice as possible now. (Or maybe rather, there’s no risk in starting a friendship that could end poorly.) Knowing that I’ll be leaving most of the organizations I’ve been involved with motivates me to make some sort of difference before I leave. (Or maybe rather, that I’m finally not plagued with the idea that I’m just doing everything for my college apps.)

Of the organizations I joined as a freshman, Quizbowl has been one of the few organizations I’ve stayed in. And last week, as I saw 7 new members join the team for the last time, I began thinking back to when I first joined the team as a freshman.

Still fresh off the novelty of  high school, I was eager to join the team, to continue something I had done in middle school. In some ways, it was great. I was included in on the jokes. Most people knew my name. (This was a bigger deal to me than I care to admit.) My team members and the sponsors were witty and intelligent and nerdy. Plus, there was free food.

But something else wasn’t right: my actual quizbowl ability. Week after week, I watched juniors and seniors on the team name things I had never even heard of, much less could identify. Spending 90 minutes each week listening to hundreds of questions I didn’t know the answer to was demoralizing.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise that after a few months, I didn’t want to come to practices anymore. I wasn’t contributing anything to the team, and people had no reason to pay attention to me.

* * *

If this were a good story, someone else would swoop in right about now, motivate me, and I would muster up the drive and self-discipline to become a national quizbowl champion. If this were a good story and had I not won the birth lottery, this type of story might even become famous: the girl who beat all her more privileged peers.

None of that happened though, and now,  I’m still mediocre at quizbowl. End of story. Simply another failed story, a direct result of my lack of hard work…

…but is that really it? I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly was so discouraging in the first place. Was it being exposed to the genius upperclassmen? Nope,  I had seen plenty good quizbowl players in middle school and been pummeled at every math competition I went to. I had been exposed to the limits of my own intelligence early on. That didn’t explain everything.

What was different, however, was that in middle school, there were other people affirming how I felt. When my friends and I saw these “geniuses”, we could marvel at their intelligence together before throwing ourselves into studying more. But as a freshman on the quizbowl team, I was an outsider among a group of people who had already assimilated. (at least from my perspective).

When I ask people why so few stories of people overcoming tough situations exist, their response has been “some people just aren’t cut out to do well” or that everything can be accomplished with enough “grit”. My parents occasionally talk about the necessity of “chi ku” (literally: eating bitter) in order to succeed. Every work of literature I’ve read in English has had the theme “Wisdom through suffering,” to the extent that it’s become a joke.

I believe that mindset too at times: I’ve told myself: “Screw the inferiority complex. I’ll just work twice as hard and prove myself” more times than I can count. Because maybe that’s the right attitude. Maybe I’m just trying to rationalize my laziness, and maybe I’ll just have to face the uncomfortable truth that I don’t want to put the work into being a good quizbowl player.

Yet,  I can’t help but feel bad when year after year, I see the same excited students join the team each year and leave discouraged after a few practices. I see a bit too much of myself in them,  and most of them didn’t even have my exposure to middle school quizbowl. The last thing I want to blame it on is their own laziness or the lack of some innate quality.

This also makes me uncomfortable. By not doing more to help these new members, am I actively choosing to perpetuate the cycle that almost made me quit quizbowl? Am I guilty of my own crime?

I try to tell the new members “It’s okay if it’s tough. It’s always a difficult transition.”  in hopes that it will help. But I really doubt that’s enough to get them through the months it takes to realize that yes, Quizbowl  indeed only tests a finite list of topics, that yes, you can still have fun even if you’re barely answering any questions and that yes, it’s definitely worth staying.  What if they become systematically desensitized and developed a feeling of learned helplessness, like I been so close to? Until I had more friends join the team my sophomore year, I wouldn’t have had many qualms about dropping out.

* * *

It’s weird that I chose to focus on Quizbowl here–it’s been neither the most influential nor distinctive feature of high school for me, not by a long shot. But it’s something I’ve been involved with for a long time, something with easily quantifiable metrics, an activity in which I’ve felt both superior and inferior.

In fact, it’s a lot like school, though doing well in school has been an ego boost for me more often than not. What can it be like for the other half?

This weekend, I heard a former district superintendent talk about dismal literacy rates in my county. (Spoiler: two-thirds of students can’t read on grade level.)

At its heart, he said, not knowing how to read is a form of emotional abuse. Not even considering the social and economic implications of illiteracy, constantly being evaluated by your ability to take tests that you can’t even understand is emotionally devastating.

This bothers me. I didn’t grow up with parents who spoke English, I certainly wasn’t a hardworking preschooler (if that even exists), and I learned to read just fine. But for a myriad of other smaller, more subtle reasons, this isn’t a reality for the majority of my peers who grew up in the same community as me, and I can only imagine what their attitude towards school must be. 1

Ignoring that inferiority complex that we all possess in some form is just going to result in more and more insecurity, more jealousy, that constant feeling of not being good enough, or worst (and perhaps the most logical conclusion), simply not caring anymore. Affirming someone’s feelings goes a lot further than denying that they exist. We’re naturally hardwired to connect with one another, and ignoring emotional and biological feedback is rarely a good idea.

With that, I present…

Amy’s list of self-reminders:

  1. Find pleasure in what you’re learning/doing
  2. Find private, intrinsic, quiet pleasure in what you’re learning/doing. No one can take that away from you.
  3. Practice every day.
  4. Silence the outside voices and competition
  5. You’re not the best. Don’t get cocky.
  6. You’re not the best. It’s okay.
  7. Most of the journey is going to be done on your own. Be prepared.
  8. Other people are important. Find a good support system.
  9. Other people are important. Find a good system of people to support.
  10. Worst case scenario: Things don’t go your way, and you learn a bunch in the process.
  11. It’s okay.
  12. Get enough sleep .

Anything to add?

 * * *

Reading:


  1. To be fair though, one of the first things I did after learning to read was to pull a handle on a bright red box with the words “pull”. The fire alarm. Whoops.