Adventures in code

Relative deprivation and the big picture.

I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s book “David and Goliath – Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants.” Gladwell writes about a phenomenon called relative deprivation – when we are deprived of something, relative to the people around us. I’m going to talk a little about this phenomenon, and how it relates to keeping the big picture of the world in mind.

It could manifest as not wanting to have a less impressive car than your neighbor I’m going to dive into this a little bit, and see why the natural human inclination to compete with, and compare against the people around us, is a mistake. One example of relative deprivation is the following: You’re at a very prestigious university and everyone else is smarter than you! You might be at the bottom here, but in the big picture you’re at the bottom of the top.

Consider the following data, shamelessly stolen from Gladwell:

For Hartwick University (STEM students)

  Top third Middle third Bottom third
SAT Score (Math, out of 800) 569 472 407
% of Students that graduate 55.4% 27.1% 17.8%

The math part of the SAT seems to correlate with how likely you are to graduate, instead of dropping out or switching majors. However we notice an interesting pattern if we also look at the same data for a more prestigious university.

For Harvard University (STEM students)

  Top third Middle third Bottom third
SAT Score (Math) 753 674 581
% of Students that graduate 53.4% 31.2% 15.4%

We see the same pattern. But the interesting thing is, the SAT score for the bottom third of Harvard student is higher than the top third from Hartwick. They all have more or less the same courses, which means the drop out rate from Harvard isn’t because the bottom third aren’t smart enough to graduate. They obviously are, they do it from Hartwick all the time. The real reason is; they compare themselves to the students around them and if the other students are smarter, they become demotivated and change majors or drop out.

This brings us to my point – humans fall prey to cognitive biases all the time. We’re terrible at looking at the big picture, among other things.

What’s my point here? My point is, that you should be looking at the big picture, and not just the little slice of the world that’s around you. That means if you’re very competitive with the people around you, you’re not looking at the big picture. The real competition isn’t the person sitting next to you, it’s the millions person you never think about and you never meet. The people that you actually “meet”? They’re the ones who you can team up with, to compete with the invisible behemoth, that is the rest of the world. Be helpful, be kind. And never forget the big picture.