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.