Keeping Up With The Joneses Leads to Worse Psychological and Physical Health for White People

Before the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, research suggested that premature deaths among white Americans were rising. Even before the era of COVID-19, these findings were surprising, according to researchers.

“These trends were puzzling to us because white people, on average, have more wealth than other racial groups and are generally privileged in our society,” said Dr. Erin Cooley, an assistant professor of psychology at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York.

The trends led Cooley and her colleagues to question whether factors other than income and education, known as objective indicators of status, may not buy happiness for white people. Instead, they decided to investigate the role of social comparisons — the desire to “keep up with the Joneses.”

Their study’s findings indicate that white Americans tend to compare their own status to other white Americans — people they perceive as much wealthier than themselves. The greater the perceived disparity, the worse they feel, psychologically and physically, regardless of their objective status, the researchers discovered.

In one study for their research, the researchers asked 490 white Americans and 519 Black Americans to rank their own status on a ladder. They were told to select higher ladder rungs if they felt high status and lower rungs if they felt low status.

Next, all the participants were asked to rank “the majority of their racial group” on the same scale.

The researchers followed with questions about participants’ health, emotions, and wellbeing.

A second study replicated their findings, the researchers reported.

“Results revealed that white Americans tended to make upward status comparisons. In other words, they most often compared their status to other white people — people who they perceived as having higher status than the self,” says Cooley, one of the study’s co-lead authors. “In contrast, Black Americans most often compared their status to other Black people — people who they perceived as doing worse than the self.”

The researchers found that, among white Americans, larger upward comparisons were associated with feeling fewer positive emotions and having worse physical health.

Interestingly, the findings suggest that it is exactly because of the belief that white equals wealth that many white people feel as if they are falling behind, according to the researchers.

Although their work illuminates psychological processes that may harm the health of white Americans, the researchers also urge readers to consider two points

  1. Data was collected before the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, and
  2. As clearly revealed by the pandemic, minority racial and ethnic groups — particularly African Americans and Latinx Americans — are disproportionately impacted by poor health outcomes and economic downturns.

“Due to racism and persistent racial inequities, there are many health disparities experienced by people of color in the United States, including rates of heart disease and diabetes,” said Jazmin Brown-Iannuzzi, an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Kentucky and a co-lead author of the research.

This means that while the current study represents an interesting psychological mechanism for white Americans, it should not detract from the fact that structural racism in the United States creates health and wealth inequalities along racial lines, the researchers note.

The study was published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Source: Society for Personality and Social Psychology

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