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Social comparisons and health: Can having richer friends and neighbors make you sick?

  • Pham-Kanter, Genevieve

Do richer friends and neighbors improve your health through positive material effects, or do they make you feel worse through the negative effect of social comparison and relative deprivation? Using the newly available National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NSHAP) data set that reports individuals' income positions within their self-defined social networks, this paper examines whether there is an association between relative position and health in the US. Because this study uses measures of individuals' positions within their self-defined social groups rather than researcher-imputed measures of relative position, I am able to more precisely examine linkages between individual relative position and health. I find a relationship between relative position and health status, and find indirect support for the biological mechanism underlying the relative deprivation model: lower relative position tends to be associated with those health conditions thought to be linked to physiological stress. I also find, however, that only extremes of relative position matter: very low relative position is associated with worse self-rated physical health and mobility, increased overall disease burden, and increased reporting of cardiovascular morbidity; very high relative position is associated with lower probabilities of reporting diabetes, ulcers, and hypertension. I observe few associations between health and either moderately high or moderately low positions. This analysis suggests that the mechanism underlying the relative deprivation model may only have significant effects for those at the very bottom or the very top.

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Article provided by Elsevier in its journal Social Science & Medicine.

Volume (Year): 69 (2009)
Issue (Month): 3 (August)
Pages: 335-344

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Handle: RePEc:eee:socmed:v:69:y:2009:i:3:p:335-344
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