Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Relative deprivation and emotion

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Relative deprivation and emotion:
What is the effect of relative deprivation on emotion?

Overview[edit | edit source]

This chapter focuses on relative deprivation (RD) and its effects on emotion, by examining the effects it has on emotions we can then examine how these emotions can impact behaviour and how both emotions and behaviour combined can affect overall mental and physical health. While reading this chapter keep the below focus questions in mind:

Focus questions:

  1. What does relative deprivation mean?
  2. How does this theory affect us?
  3. Can it influence our emotions, behaviours and mental health?
  4. What are the positive implications of relative deprivation?

What is relative deprivation?[edit | edit source]

This section explains relative deprivation, going into depth about how this theory can explain social phenomena and attempts to provide insight into questions that everyday people may find themselves asking about their expectations and abilities.

Relative deprivation[edit | edit source]

RD has been extensively studied by social psychologists and has a number of definitions. One of the most widely accepted definitions was created by Walter Runcimen (Bossert & D'Ambrosio, 2007) who suggested that RD can be seen when:

One does not have X

One observes others who have obtained X

One would like to have X

One sees thyself as being able to obtain X

Runcimen observed that the power of relative deprivation is reliant on how far away one believes themselves to be from the desired situation and how badly they want to obtain the motivating factor (Bossert & D'Ambrosio, 2007).

Figure 1. This image is from WWII and is an example of what an American Solider would have looked like during the time of Samuel Stouffer's analysis of relative deprivation.

An alternative explanation of RD was proposed by Samuel Stouffer, a social psychologist, who observed during World War II that military personnel were not jealous of each others speed of advancement through each rank (an example can be seen in Figure 1). Stouffer began to wonder why there was no competition between them, he then proposed that men in different military positions and ranks rarely interconnected and therefore, their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their job was relative to themselves and those around them at their same level (Pettigrew, 2015).

The Journal article Relative deprivation theory: An overview and conceptual critique states that "the theory of relative deprivation is based on the concept that people may feel deprived of some desirable thing relative to their own past, other persons or groups, or some other social category" (Walker, Pettigrew, 1984). In simpler terms RD is a feeling of inferiority due to a disadvantage in comparison to others, this disadvantage may be personal (looks and abilities), societal (social status or class), or financial (perceived wealth), along with many other reasons. This type of comparison can only occur relative to the individuals perceived disadvantage, so if a person believes they deserve something that they don't have that other people possess they may incur feelings of RD.

What are the effects of relative deprivation?[edit | edit source]

In order to understand the effects of relative deprivation on an individual it must first be broken down into relevant sections to be analysed separately before being understood as a whole. There are 3 contributing factors that create the social phenomena of relative deprivation, below they are each discussed in detail.

Emotional[edit | edit source]

Relative deprivation is a subjective state that can affect a number of people however, the way in which it is interpreted and felt by that individual is unique to them depending on the types of emotions it may elicit (Smith, Pettigrew, Pippin, Bialosiewicz, 2012). An example of this is demonstrated by two universities in California that were forced to layoff a number of employees due to budget cuts, along with reducing the remaining employees salary, the reactions of this drastic change varied between employees, and caused a number of emotional responses (Osborne, Smith, Huo, 2012). The study conducted by Osborne, Smith and Huo (2012) on the participants from these universities measured the different emotional responses from employees and attempted to understand why people experienced different reactions to RD. The results from this study, which can be seen in Table 1, indicate that those who experience RD can interpret it in differing ways, those who voiced their opinions regarding the changes responded with anger, those who were fearful responded by exiting from the company as a coping strategy, some people experienced sadness and therefore neglected their responsibilities and job, and others experienced gratefulness and were therefore loyal to the company (Osborne, Smith, Huo, 2012).

Table 1.

Reactions to layoffs linked to relative deprivation and emotions (Osborne, Smith, Huo, 2012)

Response 1 Response 2 Response 3 Response 4
Anger = voice response Fear = exit response Sadness = neglect response Gratefulness = loyalty response
Voice = approaching the source of threat Exit = fear motivates escapism Neglect = withdrawing from the situation Loyalty = thankfulness and happiness encourage loyalty

The above results reveal three negative emotions and one positive emotion (Preece, Becerra, Robinson, Dandy, Allan, 2018) displayed in reaction to the RD the participants encountered during this furlough. Emotions such as anger, fear and sadness have negative connotations that depict them as unhelpful and destructive, however, each response can be used to positively change a situation. Each of these emotions have adaptive functions which assist in times of crisis; anger motivates individuals to action to improve their situation by confronting the disadvantage they may face, fear is a motivational tool that teaches individuals how to avoid negative situations, and sadness is an emotion that indicates when individuals should remove themselves from a situation (Smith, Cronin, Kessler, 2008). By understanding these emotions and using this knowledge to their advantage individuals can recognise the source that is producing the emotions, rationalise and interpret them and use this awareness to assist in making decisions in difficult situations where they may feel disadvantaged.

Quiz Time!

1 Everyones[grammar?] experience of relative deprivation is the same.


2 Sadness is linked to which behavioural response:

voice response
loyalty response
neglect response
fear response

3 Anger is an adaptive emotion


Behavioural[edit | edit source]

As discussed previously RD can have varying effects on emotion, however, these emotions can motivate behaviour and lead to problematic situations. Although anger has been previously described in this chapter as an adaptive emotion it can also have unfavourable outcomes by evoking aggressive behaviour (Greitemeyer and Sagioglou, 2017). Those who experience RD in different areas of their life may feel angry and believe they deserve something that they cannot obtain, for example a job promotion or to buy their dream car. This anger may turn into aggressive behaviour, however, it has been identified that the aggressive or violent behaviour is only directed to the cause of the deprivation (Greitemeyer and Sagioglou, 2017). Therefore, those who are relatively deprived are not a threat to all individuals and do not put the broader population at risk, as their aggression is tailored to those perceived guilty for their disadvantage.

Figure 2. A program aimed at reducing drug abuse through education

Negative emotions such as anger, frustration and fear are produced due to mindsets of inequality, this then leads to other risky behaviours such as unsafe sexual activity, crime and substance misuse, which can be seen in Figure 2 (Pickett & Wilkinson, 2015). A study conducted by Mishra and Novakowski (2016) examined if RD had an impact on risk taking in the form of impulsivity, sensation seeking (high or low) and self-control (high or low). The results from this study conclude that those experiencing RD were positively linked to higher levels of impulsive decision making, sensation seeking in the form of gambling and anti-social behaviour which was consistent with previous literature on RD (Mishra, Novakowski, 2016). Therefore, it is important to understand that those suffering from inequality may behave in certain ways due to their perceived disadvantage, and RD can influence behaviour and should be seen as a response to negative social comparison to others. This understanding can be harnessed to change societal views of anti-social behaviour and encourage collective support in an attempt to lower adverse effects of RD.

Relative deprivations effects are not limited to the above mentioned, not only can it control emotional behaviour but this can then lead to physical and addictive behaviours such as gambling. A strong link has been discovered between those that suffer from RD and and excessive gambling, in hopes of changing the situation through risk related tasks in order to gain short term rewards (Callan, Shead, Olson, 2011). However, this behaviour has the potential to ruin lives emotionally, financially and socially, and has been classified as a diagnosable disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.;DSM-5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013) that can lead to significant consequences. The study conducted by Callan et al (2011) indicates that the manipulation of felt RD increased the chances of the participants gambling as they preferred to win smaller rewards sooner rather than larger rewards later. Highlighting that although those suffering from RD may believe that gambling can improve their situation, believing it to be a quick way to receive rewards thereby increasing their financial and social status, they are more likely to risk the rewards than keep them (Callan, Shead, Olson, 2011), leaving them in the same disadvantaged position[Rewrite to improve clarity]. Individuals must therefore be conscious of the possible effects that RD can have on their behaviour and use this to assist them and the broader population in managing and reducing these problematic behaviours.

Quiz Time!

1 RD produces aggression towards:

(a) Everyone
(b) The person causing RD
(c) The situation causing RD
(d) Both b and c

2 Gambling is listed as a diagnosable disorder in DSM-5


3 RD can lead to behaviour such as

Safe behaviour
Risky behaviour
Normal behaviour

Mental and physical health[edit | edit source]

Feelings of inequality are produced by comparison to others in our immediate circle, those that are part of our in-group become our competition and what we use to measure our progress through life. Therefore, if an individual feels as though they are not excelling at the same speed or with the same confidence as their peers they will begin to feel the effects of RD. Negative social comparison can lead to poor mental and physical health, as the individual believes they are performing inadequately and may begin to create feelings of self doubt (Mishra & Carleton, 2015). A study was conducted to test RD and its association to poor physical and mental health and the results indicated that difference in income between individuals was the main contributing factor to poorer self-reported mental and physical well-being (Mishra & Carleton, 2015). Income is vital in modern society, with increasing cost of living, those who earn an average income or below can feel as though they are barely surviving, and in comparison to others who may be reaching their financial goals they may believe themselves to be failures. This type of comparison mentality is increasing as social media is connecting people worldwide and those who were previously not thought of as competition may become driving forces behind RD, as average people are exposed to others 'perfect' online facades (Aalbers, Heeren, McNally, De Wit & Fried, 2019). This knowledge suggests that more attention should be placed on income inequality in society, as it is a contributing factor to overall RD and is linked to poorer mental and physical health.

A study conducted by Kuo and Chiang (2013) used self report measures to examine the link between RD and physical and mental health,[grammar?] they found that those who believed themselves to be relatively deprived associated themselves with significantly poorer physical and psychological health than those who did not believe themselves to be deprived. These findings indicate that individuals who believe they are suffering from inequality are more likely to believe themselves to be considerably more depressed and unhealthy, ultimately indicating that their perceived worth and status in society can have significant effect their mental well-being. The link between inequality and health can then lead to an increase in poor behaviour as previously mentioned, and those who are effected by RD are more likely to begin smoking, which in turn increases their mindsets towards poor self-rated physical health (Kuo & Chiang, 2013). RD is linked to social comparison and poor health, in order to reduce these feelings of insignificance which lead to deprived mindsets the gaps in class structure need to be evaluated and improved to assist the individuals who are suffering.

Case study 1.1

Annie is graduating from high school and is applying to go to college,[grammar?] she is top of her class in school so she has her standards set high for which college she chooses. With the encouragement of her family and friends Annie decides to apply for Harvard her dream school. As a back up plan Annie decides to apply to a few other local community colleges in her town. One day the mail comes and Annie is nervous to know the outcome of her college applications,[grammar?] she opens the letter from Harvard and is shocked to see she has been accepted into their program,[grammar?] she is instantly overjoyed and filled with confidence in her abilities. When Annie begins to attend college she loves soaking up the knowledge of her professors, however, when assessment time begins Annie gets worried. Her results show she is performing average compared to her peers and she isn't receiving the marks she hoped for, she starts to doubt her ability. Each semester goes on the same and Annie gets upset with herself. Annie falls into a depression and contemplates dropping out,[grammar?] she believes if she can't get the marks she is looking for in school how is she going to perform in her dream job. Annie is being affected by relative deprivation, as she is looking up to top students in her class and therefore, believes her abilities are terrible in comparison, this begins to make her feel depressed. If Annie had attended a community college there is a chance she would have topped her class as there would have been less competition. However, by attending a more prestigious college and comparing herself to the highest scored students she feel unequal and worthless.

Societal inequality due to comparison has substantial evidence connecting it to RD, as constant comparison and feelings of unworthiness create a difficult mental state that is hard to break out of. A study assessing RD and depressive symptoms conducted by Beihai, Mishra, Meadow, Parmar and Huang (2017) demonstrated that RD is a crucial instrument in the development of depressive symptoms and was positively correlated to an increase in negative thoughts about the self. Therefore individuals who are affected by RD automatically associate their situation with negative emotions which in turn leads to negative thoughts about themselves. This type of self-destructive thinking has the potential to create increasing negative effects. Individuals who are not satisfied with their life feel as though they are out of control and can't take on the challenges or stresses that occur everyday and life satisfaction has been linked to suicide therefore, those who are not satisfied with their life have an increased risk of suicide (Bray & Gunnell, 2006). Being unhappy with ones[grammar?] socioeconomic position in relation to those around them can lead to dangerous behaviours and poor health and should continue to be studied more broadly to assess whether there is anything that can be done to assist those that are suffering from feelings of RD.

Positive implications of relative deprivation[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Protesters in Melbourne coming together to stand against the governments decision to close 150 remote communities in WA.

Although is seems as though RD is a negative mechanism it can be used as an adaptive tool to create change. If an individual is accepting of their situation they will never have the motivation to evolve and advance in all areas of their life, therefore, feelings of RD are necessary for encouraging change. One of the ways that RD has assisted people world wide and for centuries is through social movements which cause global restructuring and can be seen in attitude, behavioural and political changes towards people of colour throughout the world. One experiment conducted by Leach, Lyer and Pedersen (2007) highlighted how structural disadvantage in Australia's indigenous aboriginal people created political action due to RD, an example of this can be seen in figure 3. It was found that the anger within the group which was caused by inequality and racism motivated activism against the government in hopes of change (Leach et al, 2007), as mentioned previously, anger has the potential to be an adaptive emotion and when it is caused due to inequality and racism it can have positive life altering effects.

Relative deprivation can inspire change in many forms, feeling as though you have less than others can push people to work harder towards there goals, and it has been highlighted in a study conducted by Watanabe (2007) who proposed that people who feel relatively deprived will come together to inspire change. The study highlighted the significant effect that RD can have on creating social movements which encourage positive change within society, and demonstrated that those who recognise the difference between there aspirations and reality will more commonly be involved with social movements (Watanabe, 2007). However, RD is the not sole contributing factor to social movements as it has been found that relative deprivation alone can't always inspire change, but instead needs to be paired with opportunity for change to strike up a revolution (Watanabe, 2007). This understanding of RD can be applied to more than just political and social change, individuals use RD as a motivating factor to create change in their lives, using the advancement of others to help inspire them to overcome the challenges they face and live up to their own expectations, if they believe they have the tools to do so.

Case study 1.2

Martha is an American house wife living in the 1970's[grammar?]. She is married to Tom and has 3 kids with him. She spends her days at home and is always told by family and friends, "you must be so proud of yourself, you have a lovely house, great children and a caring husband who buys you whatever you want". However, Martha did not feel this sense of pride, as she was confined to her home and spent her time cleaning and preparing food for her family, creating a lack of fulfillment which left her feeling trapped in her home. Martha always read the paper around lunch time to help pass the day and stay up to date, on this particular day Martha read an article about a social movement group which was advocating for womens[grammar?] right[spelling?] - they called themselves feminists. Martha recalled seeing something similar on TV, and began to think more about the rights she possessed and what these women where pushing for. She realised that she too wanted the opportunity for things such as, a job that was thought to be men's work only, equal pay for the same work, and abortion rights, along with many other opportunities. So Martha joined the Equal Rights social movement in hopes for a better life and a better future for the generation of women to come.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The effect of relative deprivation on emotion has been shown to create many negative and positive implications. RD can create differing emotions for each individual that[grammar?] experiences it, depending on the situation and the outcomes it has for the individual it can be seen as a negative or positive mechanism to change. Although RD has been linked to decreased emotional and physical health, it can also be a strong influence for change within disadvantaged groups. Relative deprivation can be used to motivate people through the use of emotions such as anger due to feelings of inferiority, however anger can become a negative influence on behaviour as negative emotions can lead to increases in anti-social behaviour and cause aggressiveness, gambling problems, risk taking in the form of drug abuse and crime. Therefore, the phenomena of RD is diverse and needs to be understood in order to be used effectively. Relative deprivation is an adaptive mechanism that assists individuals in recognising their potential and motivating them to reach it, RD can be harnessed and used for creating positive outcomes. However, RD does have some negative side effects and the impact it has on mental and physical health can be detrimental to functioning. Therefore, more support needs to be given to those of lower socioeconomic status to ensure they are able to overcome these negative emotions and use them as tool for change.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Aalbers, G. Heeren, A. McNally, R. De Wit, S. Fried, E. (2019). Social Media and Depression Symptoms: A Network Perspective. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 148, 1454-1462,

American Psychiatric Association. (2013).Gambling Disorder. In Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).Washington, DC: Author.

Bray, I. Gunnell, D. (2006). Suicide rates, life satisfaction and happiness as markers for population mental health. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 41, 333-337, doi:10.1007/s00127-006-0049-z

Beshai, S. Mishra, S. Meadows T. J. S. Parmar, P. Huang, V. (2016). Minding the gap: Subjective relative deprivation and depressive symptoms. 'Social Science & Medicine', 173, 18-25.

Bossert, W. D’Ambrosio, C. (2006). Dynamic measures of individual deprivation. Social Choice and Welfare, 28, 77-88, doi:10.1007/s00355-006-0150-y

Callan, M. J. Shead, N. W. Olson, J. M. (2011). Personal relative deprivation, delay discounting, and gambling. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101 (5), 955-973, DOI: 10.1037/a0024778

Greitemeyer, T., & Sagioglou, C. (2017). Increasing wealth inequality may increase interpersonal hositility: The relationship between personal relative deprivation and aggression. The Journal of Social Psychology, 157(6), 766-776. DOI:10.1080/00224545.2017.1288078

Kuo, C.T. Chiang, T.L. (2013). The association between relative deprivation and self-rated health, depressive symptoms, and smoking behaviour in Taiwan. Social Science and Medicine, 89, 39-44,

Leach, C. Lyer, A. Pedersen, A. (2007). Angry opposition to government redress: When the structurally advantaged perceive themselves as relatively deprived. British Journal of Social Psychology, 46, 191-204, doi: 10.1348/014466606X99360

Marx, K. (1847). Wage Labour and Capital. Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 11, 5-8,

Mishra, S. Carleton, R. N. (2015). Subjective relative deprivation is associated with poorer physical and mental health. Social Science and Medicine, 147, 144-149, DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2015.10.030

Mishra, S., & Novakowski, D. (2016). Personal relative deprivation and risk: An examination of individual differences in personalty, attitudes, and behavioural outcomes. Personality and Individual Differences, 90, 22-26,

Osborne, D. Smith, H. J. Huo, Y. J. (2012). More than a feeling. Discrete Emotions Mediate the Relationship Between Relative Deprivation and Reactions to Workplace Furloughs. Sage Journals, DOI: 10.1177/0146167211432766

Pettigrew, T. F. (2015). Samuel Stouffer and relative deprivation. American Sociological Association, 78, 7-24, DOI: 10.1177/0190272514566793

Pickett, K. Wilkinson, R. (2015). Income inequality and health: A causal review. Social Science and Medicine, 128, 316-326,

Preece, D. Becerra, R. Robinson, K. Dandy, J. Allan, A. (2018). Measuring emotion regulation ability across negative and positive emotion: The Perth Emotion Regulation Competency Inventory (PERCI). Personality and Individual Differences. 135, 229-241,

Smith, H. Cronin, T. Kessler, T. (2008). Anger, Fear, or Sadness: Faculty Members’ Emotional Reactions to Collective Pay Disadvantage. Political Psychology, 29, 221-246, doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2008.00624.x

Smith. H, Pettigrew, T. Pippin, G. Bialosiewicz, S. (2012). Relative deprivation: A Theoretical and Meta-Analytic Review. Personality and Social Psychology Review,16, 203-232, doi:10.1177/108886831 1430825.

Walker, I., & Pettigrew, T. F. (1984). Relative deprivation theory: An overview and conceptual critique. British Journal Of Social Psychology, 23, 301-310. DOI:10.1111/j.2044-8309.1984.tb00645.x

Watanabe, T. (2007). International comparison on the occurrence of social movements. Journal of Business research. 60, 806-812, DOI:10.1016/j.jbusres.2007.01.008

External links[edit | edit source]

  • An article written by Niran Al-Agba explores how economic inequality may increase the risk of mass shootings due to perceived relative deprivation
  • A YouTube video by Khan academy medicine highlights why people join social movements using different theories to explain, one being relative deprivation
  • A YouTube video of Malcolm Gladwell discussing his thoughts on the effects of relative deprivation
  • A YouTube video by The Audiopedia discussing what relative deprivation is