What Is Relative Deprivation?

Relative deprivation occurs when a person is denied an object or condition that he or she believes is deserved. For example, as cellular phones become increasingly ubiquitous, people without them might experience relative deprivation because they feel entitled to have phones of their own.

Relative deprivation transcends mere jealousy because the person does not just covet the item or the experience, but believes he or she should have it. The person might experience a loss of dignity or self-worth because of it. The wanted item could be a consumer product, a degree of wealth or the ability to engage in certain experiences, such as lavish vacations.

Experts have studied relative deprivation for decades. In 1972, a study evaluated the impact of relative deprivation on racism. The researchers concluded that, when comparing themselves to the wealth or status of African Americans, Caucasians exhibited more racism.

Relative deprivation can also lead to the mismanagement of money and other financial problems. For example, if a person believes he or she is entitled to a cell phone, they might purchase a phone instead of paying essential bills in order to keep up with people who have phones. The subjects and degree of relative deprivation change over time as social norms evolve and people develop new habits.