NORWICH, United Kingdom — At some point in most of our lives, there’s probably been a time where we’ve felt a little jealous of something that someone else close to us had. From a friend getting a better job, to a sibling buying a bigger home, feeling envious is a normal human reaction for many people. While it might be normal to want a better life for ourselves, researchers at University of East Anglia say these feelings can lead to risky and potentially harmful behavior. In fact, their study finds those who have more hope tend to be happier with what they have and take fewer risks.
The British team calls these feelings “relative deprivation,” or a belief that other people have a better life than you. The study aimed to find out why some people who exhibit relative deprivation turn to harmful activities like gambling, drinking, and drugs while others don’t. Their findings reveal the answer lies in how hopeful each person is.
“I think most people have experienced relative deprivation at some point in their lives. It’s that feeling of being unhappy with your lot, the belief that your situation is worse than others, that other people are doing better than you,” postgraduate researcher Shahriar Keshavarz says in a university release. “Roosevelt famously said that ‘comparison is the thief of joy’. It’s that feeling you have when a friend buys a new car, or your sister gets married, or a colleague finds a better job or has a better income. Relative deprivation can trigger negative emotions like anger and resentment, and it has been associated with poor coping strategies like risk taking, drinking, taking drugs or gambling.”
“But not everyone scoring high on measures of relative deprivation makes these poor life choices. We wanted to find out why some people seem to cope better, or even use the experience to their advantage to improve their own situation. There is a lot of evidence to show that remaining hopeful in the face of adversity can be advantageous, so we wanted to see if hope can help people feel happier with their lot and buffer against risky behaviors,” Keshavarz continues.
Measuring hope and gauging risk
The study conducted a series of experiments to see how people react when confronted with greater levels of relative deprivation.
In one test with 55 participants, researchers surveyed how much envy and hope the group usually feels. The British team also raised these feelings of jealously by telling participants how deprived they are compared to a peer. That information came from a questionnaire each person filled out about their income, age, and gender.
After gauging how hopeful and how much relative deprivation each person felt, researchers made the group take part in a specially-designed gambling test with a chance to win real money.
“The aim of this part of the study was to see whether feeling relatively deprived – elicited by the knowledge that one has less income than similar others – causes greater risk-taking among low-hopers and decreased risk-taking among high-hopers,” Dr. Piers Fleming explains.
“We looked at the people who scored high for relative deprivation, the ones that thought their situation in life was worse than those around them. And we looked at those who also scored high for hope. We found that the volunteers who scored high for hope, were much less likely to take risks in the game. Those who weren’t too hopeful, were a lot more likely to take risks.”
Do compulsive gamblers feel less hopeful?
In another experiment, the team looked at hope’s effect on people in the real world. Researchers studied 122 volunteers who had gambled at least one time in the last year. Study authors again surveyed the gamblers to gauge their level of relative deprivation and how hopeful each person is. In this experiment, the team also measured if the participants have a problem with gambling addiction.
The results show 27 percent have no gambling problems, 26 percent have low levels of addiction, and 38 percent have a moderate gambling problem which could lead to negative consequences. Nine percent of the group were classified as problem gamblers who could lose control during a game.
“When we looked at these scores compared to scores for hope and relative deprivation, we found that increased hope was associated with a decreased likelihood of losing control of gambling behavior – even in those who experienced relative deprivation,” Keshavarz reports.
“Interestingly, our study found no significant relation between hope and gambling severity among relatively privileged persons. We don’t know why this is, but it could be that they are gambling recreationally or better able to stop when the fun stops.”
The study appears in the Journal of Gambling Studies.