Identifying Self As Disadvantaged: Fight Or flight?

Faced with the same seemingly insurmountable levels of disadvantage – whether that is as a result of poverty, trauma or discrimination, we know intuitively that individuals will respond very differently.

Some will react against such perceived disadvantage; indeed there is a sense of ‘fighting back’, almost gaining energy in adversity and finding a positive path to success despite the circumstances.

For others the weight of that same disadvantage will create an inescapable spiral of negative self-belief, potential loss of constructive action and reinforcement of the negative expectations of being disadvantaged.

For others there is a neutral acceptance and a ‘getting on’ with what life throws at them. It’s interesting to reflect on how anyone of us would or has responded within an environment of perceived disadvantage. The key here is how we perceive. Has that now familiar notion, a ‘glass ceiling’, pervaded your own level of societal success?

As a woman in a business world, or someone on a low income or as a person whose education was felt to have ‘let them down’, do you think your confidence has been dented by the notion of being at a disadvantage or in fact have you determinedly and consistently proved to yourself that such potential disadvantage isn’t going to apply to you? And what exactly is it that creates such a difference in reaction amongst us?

Well it is certainly a complex field that zigzags across a number of disciplines. So, in this next 5 minutes lets ‘scratch the surface’ of some of the terminology and delve into some recent meta-analytic studies of both relative deprivation and perceived discrimination and their impact on psychological wellbeing.  “Too many potentially confused and overused concepts” I hear you shout.  How right you are!

The concept of relative deprivation or ‘RD’ as it is known has recently been expounded upon in the work of Smith et al (2011), who contend that for RD to exist there has to be, at an individual processing level, the elements of comparison (to another individual or group), appraisal and negative affect. In other words, the perceived disadvantage is seen as and felt to be unjust.  So for example I can compare my earnings with my contemporaries, and conclude that fact that they gained initial jobs where they earned twice as much as I did, was in a large part due to their degree being from a more prestigious university than mine.

However, unless I feel aggrieved about this and have a real sense that this is unfair, then there is no RD.  Hence my reaction to comparisons will be very different depending on the conclusion and impact of my appraisal of such difference.  The Smith et al paper is a fascinating examination and well worth reading.  It not only describes a theory of RD (which will greatly assist those of us who value the process of ‘zigzaging’ across disciplines to progress our understanding), but it also analyses reactions to relative deprivation from over 210 studies involving over 186,000 respondents.

As a result it captures a wide variety of outcome measures and groups them into four categories: “collective behaviour, intergroup attitudes, individually orientated behaviours and internal responses” (Smith et al, 2011, p 208). In relation to the focus here the paper concludes that although we might assume that some people should feel disgruntled by the disadvantage they experience or are even labeled as in receipt of by society, it isn’t necessarily so. Furthermore those people who we might anticipate have no obvious grounds for feeling aggrieved due to apparent low levels of deprivation or disadvantage, in fact do!

In another recent, meta analytic study there is strong evidence that supports the contention that when you perceive yourself as a target of discrimination this negatively affects your psychological wellbeing (Schmitt et al, 2014). This seems to be regardless of the context or the measure of well being and occurs within individual and group discrimination.  The study also looked at the impact on well being measures when the level of perceived discrimination was manipulated.

As we know such experimental manipulation enables a more rigorous testing, limiting the potential effect of confounding factors in correlational studies and establishing causal relationships.  In a nutshell the meta analysis concludes that a perception of  ‘relatively pervasive discrimination’ has a negative impact on well being whereas perceptions of single instances of discrimination do not.  This appears to have an even stronger impact for groups who are seen as disadvantaged rather than advantaged and it isn’t clear whether this is due to the pervasiveness of discrimination or the severity of discriminatory events or a mix of the two.

This study also explores the level of group identity (as do Smith et al in their study on RD), access to social support and coping strategies as potential moderators of the impact of perceived discrimination. It appears that identification as belonging to an ‘in-group’ has been claimed as protective by some researchers and potentially harmful by others – so more investigation is needed if we are to understand this better: when is it protective/harmful to one’s own physical and psychological health to become actively involved in terms of challenging RD or discrimination?

The degree to which people seek out the support of family or friends has been shown to mitigate the impact of perceived discrimination on for example predicted levels of depression following an instance of discrimination (Noh and Kasper, 2003); and if a coping strategy aimed at addressing the stressor is ‘engaging’ (i.e. proactively attempts to change the stressor or one’s reaction to it), rather than ‘disengaging’ (an avoidance or blocking out of the stressor), then it is more likely to promote and safeguard well being.

To sum up as Smith et al  (2011) conclude it is the relative nature of the comparisons we make socially and the particular relationships people have inside these comparisons, that influences whether we react positively or negatively, to adversity and disadvantage.  The real prize is in applying the detail of this growing body of knowledge in a way that can assist individuals to find the positive path to achievement and to limit the degree to which negative reactions become harmful to themselves or others.

Sue Jones – MSc, MPH, Dip Clin Comm, MBPsS. Sue practices as a psychologist with an interest in organisational wellbeing and personal development.  She works from her own independent consultancy and is also the Academic Director for Health  & Psychology programme, Laureate Online Education, the online learning partner for the University of Liverpool.

Noh, S & Kaspar, V (2003). Perceived discrimination and depression: moderating the effects of coping, acculturation and ethnic support. American Journal of Public Health, 93, pp. 232-238

Schmitt, M. T., Branscombe, N. R., Postmes, T., & Garcia, A. (2014, February 17). The Consequences of Perceived Discrimination for Psychological Well-Being: A Meta-Analytic Review. Psychological Bulletin. Advance online publication.

Smith, H.J., Pettigrew, T. F., Pippin, G.M. and Bialosiewicz, S. (2011). Relative Deprivation: A Theoretical and Meta-Analytic Review. Personality and Social Psychology Review 16 (3) pp. 203-232


A contribution by Sue Jones for PsychLiverpool.

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