How you and I feel about our lives depends greatly on our social comparisons. We feel smart when others seem dimwitted, and grateful for our health when others are unwell. But sometimes during social comparisons our self-image suffers, and we feel relative deprivation—a perception that we are worse off than others with superior achievements, looks, or income. We may be happy with a raise—until we learn that our co-workers got more. And it’s better, psychologically, to make a salary of $60,000 when friends, neighbors, and co-workers make $30,000, than to make $100,000 when our compatriots make $200,000.
Relative deprivation helps us understand why the spread of television—and exposure to others’ wealth—seemingly transformed people’s absolute deprivation (lacking what others have) into relative deprivation (feeling deprived). When and where TV was introduced to various American cities, larceny thefts (shoplifting, bike stealing) soon rose.
Relative deprivation also helps us understand the psychological toxicity of today’s growing income inequality. In communities with large inequality—where some people observe others having so much more—average happiness is lower and crime rates and other social pathologies are higher.
So should we assume it’s always better to be content and happy than to be frustrated by seemingly unreachable expectations? No—because relative deprivation can also be a force for positive change. People in the former East Germany had a higher standard of living than their counterparts in some other European countries, but a frustratingly lower one than their West German neighbors—and that helped spark their revolt.
At a recent gathering of the Templeton foundations, I heard grantee Thor Halvorssen explain how his Human Rights Foundation is working to unite the world against the tyrannies that underlie poverty, famine, war, and torture. One “Flash Drives for Freedom” project responds to the North Korean people’s mistaken belief—enabled by strict censorship and the absence of Internet—that the rest of the world is worse off than they are.
This project is collecting tens of thousands of used and donated USB drives, erasing their content, and refilling them with books, videos, and an off-line Korean Wikipedia that counter Kim Jong-Un’s misinformation. (Yes, Wikipedia can fit on a flash drive—see here—and, yes, most North Koreans have access to devices that can read flash drives.) Finally, it is delivering the goods via drones and balloons with a timing device that ruptures the balloon over North Korean cities, raining down flash drives.
The implied psychological rationale: Lay the groundwork for a transformed and free North Korea by harnessing the positive power of relative deprivation.
(For David Myers’ other weekly essays on psychological science and everyday life visit TalkPsych.com)