Why It’s So Easy To Feel Off Track

Relative Deprivation, the Generalized Friendship Paradox, and Social Media

Samuel Stouffer was a sociologist who performed a number of behavioral studies within the United States Army during World War II. During the course of his research, Stouffer noticed something peculiar: In departments that offered more frequent and regular promotions, people were less satisfied with their promotion program. Wait―if it was easier to get promoted, why were people less happy?

As it turns out, being promoted in a promotion-friendly environment doesn’t make anyone feel particularly happy or proud, because it’s so common. It just makes the people who aren’t promoted feel horrible. Conversely, in an environment with a more exclusive promotion program, the select few who are promoted feel a sense of accomplishment, while everyone else still feels fine since promotions are so hard to come by. Essentially, in the latter case, the vast majority of people end up in the non-promotion boat, so they don’t feel alone. If a promotion isn’t expected, we don’t think twice about getting one. But if it’s expected and we don’t get one, we feel like crap. We measure ourselves based on how we perform relative to our local environment. In sociology, this is known as “relative deprivation” (RD).

Malcolm Gladwell discusses the concept of RD in David and Goliath, a book about underdogs. He goes into great detail about a young girl who attended Brown University. Although she was extremely intelligent on an absolute scale, she felt inadequate when comparing herself to the relatively high concentration of even smarter students at her elite college. The phenomenon occurs on a global scale too. Gladwell explains that the suicide rate in the happiest countries (Switzerland, Denmark, Iceland, the Netherlands, Canada) is actually higher than the suicide rate in countries that are reportedly less happy (Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain). Why? Because even the smallest amount of unhappiness can make you feel miserable in a happy country. When everyone else around you is smiling, you’re more likely to feel like an outcast if you experience any depression at all, which then just compounds the issue [1].

Relative deprivation is bound to happen as we move through life. Competition in the workplace usually stiffens as we advance. This is expected, so we can usually deal with that. But what if we were also constantly feeding ourselves a skewed perspective of our local environment that made things seem even worse? What if our social and professional circles appeared more competitive and glorified than they actually were? Unfortunately, this is precisely what’s happening in the digital age, as a result of something called the “Generalized Friendship Paradox”.

In 1991, the sociologist Scott Feld discovered that people, on average, have fewer friends than their friends have. Or, looking at it the other way around, your friends have more friends than you [2]. It holds true for other types of relationships, too. For example, your sexual partners are likely to have more sexual partners than you. It makes sense. If someone has lots of friends, you’re more likely to be among those friends. If someone has lots of sexual partners, you’re more likely to be among those partners. But what about other characteristics like intelligence, wealth, and happiness? Are your friends likely to be smarter, richer, and happier than you too?

Social physicists Young-Ho Eom and Hang-Hyun Jo have already answered this question, and the answer is yes. They completed a series of studies relating to published scientists, showing that if a scientist writes a scientific paper, his co-authors will have more co-authors, more citations, and more publications than him. Essentially, his colleagues will be more accomplished. Generally then, this can be applied to other characteristics within a network, including happiness, intelligence, and wealth. This is known as the “Generalized Friendship Paradox” (GFP) [3]. Here’s where this gets interesting:

Because social networks like Facebook and Twitter are highly visible networks, we now experience the GFP in our daily lives.

So, putting this all together: We are likely to have friends who have more friends than us. Those friends are likely to be smarter, wealthier, and happier than us. Those friends are also likely to post about themselves more frequently. This creates a situation where others feel inclined to mimic the behavior. Even friends who are less accomplished or less happy will try to seem equally as happy or accomplished, just to keep pace.

You can see how this creates a problem. If we combine the concept of relative deprivation with the Generalized Friendship Paradox, we get the following recipe for disaster:

  1. We tend to measure our competence by those around us (RD).
  2. We’re constantly observing people within our social circles who appear better than us (GFP).

It’s one thing to see celebrities on TV and in magazines, but it’s another thing entirely to feel like our immediate friends and colleagues are celebrities too.

It’s no wonder that most of us feel inadequate or doubtful about ourselves. There are two things to consider here. First, you have to ask yourself whether or not you’re satisfied with your life, without making unrelated comparisons. Do you not like your job because it’s not right for you, or because you’re comparing yourself to a professional skydiver who keeps posting breathtaking photos in your Facebook feed [4]? Second, and more importantly, if you legitimately aren’t satisfied, why aren’t you doing anything about it? You have to be careful because the reality is sometimes hard to see. There’s a lot of crap in the way to cloud your judgement. Big decisions always come with qualms. But you can feel more confident in your choices if you understand the true motivation behind them.

You’re not less intelligent, less wealthy, and less happy than everybody else, but unfortunately, the shiny facades of the social arena are likely to make you feel that way. You have to remember that social media is constantly feeding you a false representation of the world―a world that seems increasingly more fantastic and unattainable. You have to look past those facades and realize that it’s mostly BS. The best thing you can do is ignore it. The current happenings in cyberland have nothing to do with your stature in the world, your capabilities, or your happiness. You get to decide all of that. Once you’ve pushed the BS out of the way, you can more accurately assess your situation.

If you’re considering starting a company, quitting your job, starting a side project, ending a relationship, etc., your stature or reputation in the outside world should not be a factor in your decision. What should be the basis of your decision, then? Passion, my friend.


Notes and Citations:

[1] Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath. (Little, Brown and Company, 2013).

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friendship_paradox

[3] http://arxiv.org/abs/1401.1458

[4] This doesn’t just apply to your job. The same principle applies to your love life, accomplishments, or anything else that you might measure by making comparisons with people in your social networks.

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Jesse Warren Tevelow

Written by

Entrepreneur | Author | www.jtev.me | @jtevelow

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade