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Keeping up with your peers and what happens when you don't

  • Date

    Fri 20 Jan 17

Keeping up with your peers – and what happens when you don’t

If you think you are worse off than people similar to you then you are less likely to care or help others, whatever your social status, according to new research from Essex.

Add in the factor that people higher up the social scale are less inclined to help others and it seems the people in society who care the least about others are those at the top of the social ladder who think they are worse off than their peers.

Published in the Social Psychological and Personality Science journal, the study is part of ongoing wider research by Professor Mitch Callan into ‘personal relative deprivation’ (PRD) - feelings of resentment and dissatisfaction associated with the belief that you are worse off than similar others - and the psychology of justice and deservedness.

Funded by the Leverhulme Trust, the project tested more than 2,000 people to investigate how their perceived social status and how much they believed they were worse off than their peers affected their ‘prosocial’ beliefs and behaviour – ie a willingness to help others.

The study, conducted by Professor Callan and involving colleagues at Essex and the University of Cambridge, found that people who felt they were not doing as well as people like them were less likely to feel the need to help others.

“People who feel resentful about what they have compared to people similar to themselves are, by and large, less prosocial, and this pattern occurred irrespective of where they were on the social/economic ladder,” explained Professor Callan, ”but the negative effect of these emotions, however unfounded, impact how much they care about or want to help others.”

The study’s findings are another example of how PRD is proving to be an important indicator of a person’s social behaviour and attitudes. Feelings of resentment and unfairness that arise when people feel that similar others have more than they do has the knock-on effect of them feeling less inclined to share if they believe they are not getting what they deserve compared to others.

“So, for example, a lawyer might be making a lot of money and work for a big firm but feels a real sense of unfairness and resentment because her colleague has a corner office but she doesn’t. On the other hand, a shop worker might feel less resentful about her lot in life because she’s comparing her circumstances to her unemployed former classmates. There could be the assumption that the shop worker would feel more resentment than the lawyer about her life, when in reality the opposite is true because it all comes down to whom you are comparing yourself to.”

Further studies into this area by Professor Callan also found that people typically compare themselves with others further up the social/economic scale and how often people compared themselves to others affected their feelings of deprivation. There was also a link between how much people felt resentment and being materialistic.