Relative Deprivation

Relative Deprivation. Psychology Fanatic article header image

Relative deprivation is the perception of being worse off than other people. Feelings of deprivation hurt happiness and wellbeing, leading to frustration and disappointment. A significant point here is that we may feel deprived without being deprived at all. We may have more than most; however our subjective comparison leave us feeling lack.

Psychologists theorized that feelings of deprivation emerge from comparison and not from the original lack (absolute deprivation). Our car is just fine until we see the new car a colleague is driving. The other person’s new car sparks the feelings of lack (and jealousy).

Key Definition:

Relative deprivation is when feelings of being deprived are derived from comparison with better off others rather than objective feelings of lack.


​The concept of relative deprivation is credited to sociologist Samuel Stouffer, who developed the theory while studying social psychology during World War II. Stouffer discovered that soldiers measured their success not against the standards set by the military but from comparison with other soldiers in their units.

In one of the first formal definitions of relative deprivation, Walter Runciman listed four preconditions:

  •     Person A does not have X
  •     Person A knows of other persons that have X
  •     Person A wants to have X
  •     Person A believes obtaining X is realistic

“People experience disadvantage comparatively, not objectively. If it leads to anger and hopelessness, relative deprivation damages community and well-being.”

​Smith & Huo (2014)

Individual and Group Relative Deprivation

Individual relative deprivation is the comparison of our individual situation against that of an individual other. Often this is within group comparisons. Some refer to this as egotistic relative deprivation.

Group relative deprivation is comparison of the group from which we belong against other groups. Some refer to group deprivation as fraternal relative deprivation (2014).

A Few Words from Psychology Fanatic

We compare. We learn from observations. Often our observations of others can ignite goals, motivate action, and create a better life. The down side of comparison is the sense of deprivation when objectively we are not destitute. Often our comparing brain instead of motivating action invites sorrow. Basically, we long for what we don’t have and overlook the bountiful blessings surrounding us.

We treat our sense of lack with gratitude. We still fight group injustices, identify goals, and chase dreams. Lastly, we protect against unnecessary disappointments by cherishing the gifts that gracefully bless our lives. 

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Smith, H., & Huo, Y. (2014). Relative Deprivation. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1(1), 231-238.

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