During the second World War, psychologist Thomas Stouffer was tasked with investigating troop morale amongst African American soldiers at the military bases scattered across the Unites States of America.

I think we sometimes forget how close we are in history to that brutal period of racism in the US. During World War II, segregation was in full force, lynchings were common, and the South was a hotbed of violent racism and aggression. And the military was concerned: there were men of colour in their ranks, and some of them were being assigned from their more progressive Northern homes to training bases in the ultra-conservative South – and they were spending their time off in the same geographic space.

But as it turns out, despite the rabid environment that those Southern-based troops found themselves in, they turned out to be as happy, and in some cases, happier, than the soldiers based in the North. Stouffer’s explanation for this phenomenon would eventually become known in social psychology as the “theory of relative deprivation“. That is:

  1. When the Northern-based soldiers of colour went out into the world, they saw other people of colour doing well. The world of economic opportunity was opening up for the non-white communities, and by comparison, a military career looked mediocre – lackluster, even. Especially with the prospect of a wartime-posting across the Atlantic.
  2. But when the Southern-based soldiers of colour went out into the world, they saw other people of colour being lynched, doing menial work, and facing all the economic obstacles that the White South could throw at them. And by comparison, life in a military camp looked pretty great. Even with the prospect of a wartime-posting across the Atlantic.

The main implication of this area of social psychology is that objective circumstances are not nearly as important as relative circumstances when it comes to your sense of wellbeing in the world.

Of course, there are hard objective limits to that. But heuristically-speaking, your life-happiness (or discontent) is heavily influenced by the relatively greater (or lesser) deprivation of the people around you.

Or, as the folk at Invisibilia would say, your sense of well-being is heavily influenced by your frame of reference.

I got this story from one of the Invisibilia episodes from a few weeks ago.

But the section on ‘relative deprivation’ got me thinking about social media and the impact that it has on us. Because here is the thing:

  1. If you go back to the example of soldiers in colour during World War II, one of the key factors was the proximity of relative deprivation.
  2. Objectively speaking, soldiers in the South were worse off than soldiers in the North. If the Southern soldiers had been comparing themselves to the Northern ones, then this study might have been different.
  3. But the Northern soldiers were far away – what was close by and obvious was the plight of civilian African Americans in the South.

Some quotes from “Samuel Stouffer and Relative Deprivation” by Thomas Pettigrew:

[Stouffer] and his wartime colleagues found that the military police were more satisfied with their slow promotions than the air corpsmen were with their rapid promotions. Similarly, African American soldiers in southern camps were more satisfied than those in northern camps despite the fact that the racist South of the 1940s remained tightly segregated by race.

These apparent puzzles assume the wrong referent comparisons. Immediate comparisons, Stouffer reasoned, were the salient referents: the military police compared their promotions with other military police—not air corpsmen whom they rarely encountered. Likewise, black soldiers in the South compared their lot with black civilians in the South—not with black soldiers in the North who were out of view. Satisfaction is relative, he held, to the available comparisons we have.

So here’s my question: if this scenario was playing out in the age of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, would the results be the same?

Because today, the ‘available comparisons’ are everyone with a smartphone. And perhaps the soldiers in the North would have been in view every time a Southern soldier checked his phone, while any civilians would only have caught some peripheral vision on the odd off-base excursion.

And here’s the next observation: none of today’s ‘available comparisons’ is particularly holistic in their social media projections. You have:

  1. The Gratitude-Braggers: who look to be perpetually on holiday, getting married, and be blessed by the Universe with new things;
  2. The Social-Activists: who are very opinionated and outraged from behind their keyboards;
  3. The Deeply-Offended: who are constantly suffering from bad drivers, bad waiters, bad service, bad luck and bad weather.
  4. The Shameless Self-Promoters: who are trying to use social media for some form of financial gain; and
  5. The Vast-Majority: who rarely do anything but have a quick check to see what everyone else is doing before returning quietly to their daily lives.

And here is how we tend to treat them:

  1. The Gratitude-Braggers: envy
  2. The Social-Activists: unsubscribe
  3. The Deeply-Offended: eye-rolls
  4. The Shameless Self-Promoters: UNSUBSCRIBE
  5. The Vast Majority: ignore them, obvs, because there’s nothing to see. Unless you’re a fan of friend-list purges, in which case you might cull them in a moment of existential angst.

So inevitably, our immediate frames of comparative reference are filled with people who are apparently favoured by the Universe, and those who are clearly exaggerating about how bad their lives are.

And even if you know that you’re only getting the highlights from the #tooblessedtostress, heavily photoshopped and carefully curated to project accidental affluence, you’re still being bombarded with all the fantasy. There are no break-ups, just self-rediscoveries on exotic beaches. There is no mourning of death, just memories of all the good times and a group selfie of raised shot glasses. There are no long and dreary work days, just after-work drinks, conferences in Barcelona, and regular check-ins at the Emirates business class lounge. There are no fights between partners, just a parade of couple spa days and whimsical snapshots with the #thishuman tagline. The new puppy doesn’t poop in your lounge and chew your Apple remote, it’s just endlessly cute and cuddlesome.

So naturally, in the face of that, real life seems a bit shit.

And is it really that surprising that there is collective resentment, dissatisfaction, depression, and the hunt for scapegoats? After all, when all your peers appear to be living lives of uninterrupted pleasures, and you are not, then something must be wrong. And it must be someone’s fault.

But perhaps the primary problem is that our frame of reference is flawed. We’re wearing orange-tinted glasses in a world of apples, and convinced that all the rot smells like cider.

Time for a paradigm shift?

Because we would probably be happier.

Rolling Alpha posts opinions on finance, economics, and the corporate life in general. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rollingalpha.