A new study led by the University of East Anglia found that having hope for the future could safeguard people from risky behaviors such as gambling and drinking.
The scientists analyzed ‘relative deprivation,’ which is the feeling that other people have better lives than you. The team wanted to understand why only some of the people experiencing this state end up showing escapist and risky behaviors such as taking drugs, drinking alcohol, over-eating, or gambling, while others do not. The researchers have found that the answer lies in hope.
Relative Deprivation and Its Consequences
“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, from UEA’s School of Psychology, said. “Roosevelt famously said that ‘comparison is the thief of joy.”
Relative deprivation is that feeling you have when someone purchases a new car or a loved one gets married, or a colleague finds a better-paying job or has a better relationship. This state can trigger negative emotions such as resentment and anger, and it has been linked to poor coping strategies, including drinking, risk-taking, gambling, or consuming drugs.
“Not everyone scoring high on measures of relative deprivation makes these poor life choices,” Keshavarz explained. “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.”
The scientists performed two lab-based experiments with 55 volunteers, who were quizzed to find out the level of relative deprivation and hope they feel. The researchers also induced feelings of this state in the volunteers by telling them how unprivileged they were in comparison to their peers, based on a questionnaire regarding their family income, age, and gender. The volunteers then participated in specially created gambling games that involved risk-taking and bet placing with a possibility to win real money.
Nurturing Hope Helps in Real World
“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, also from UEA’s School of Psychology, explained.
“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,” he continued. “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.”
Another experiment assayed whether hope helped people in the real world. The team worked with 122 volunteers who had gambled at least once in the previous year. The participants took part in questionnaires to evaluate how hopeful they are if they feel somewhat deprived and to measure problem gambling.
Of the volunteers, 33 – or 27 percent – had no gambling issues, 32 – or 26 percent – had low-level issues, 46 – or 38 percent – had a moderate level of problems with some negative consequences, and 11 – or 9 percent – were gamblers with a likely loss of control.
Keshavarz said: “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. 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 scientists say that fostering hope in people who are not happy with their lot could protect against dangerous behaviors like gambling and drinking.