Our competitive American landscape — be it politics, sports or business — may be evaluated in a broad concept of winners and losers. Winners enjoy high socioeconomic status (SES), and high SES is associated with better health and lower mortality.
New research looks into this association to determine if improved health benefits are a result of access to resources (education, wealth, career opportunity, etc) or if they stem from elevated social status (relative to others). Scholars call the latter “relative deprivation.”
Investigators at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health studied these factors by tracing the health of Baseball Hall of Fame inductees, Emmy Award winners, and former Presidents and Vice Presidents — comparing the health of each to nominated losers in the same competition or election.
The result: There were no consistent advantages for winners. The association between winning and longevity is sometimes positive, sometimes negative, and sometimes nonexistent, though the specifics are revealing.
Overall, the results suggest that access to resources and opportunity is more important than relative status.
Dr. Bruce Link and his associates found the following effects of winning vs. losing in the three groups:
- Emmy-winning actors enjoyed 2.7 more years of life than nominees who did not snag the trophy. Emmy-winning screenwriters were, mysteriously, at a 3-year disadvantage.
- Baseball Hall of Famers enjoyed no advantage in longevity over non-inducted nominees.
- Presidents and Vice Presidents lose, on average, 5.3 years from their lives compared to the candidates they bested. While some of this is due to the impact of assassination, the disadvantage persists even when assassination is taken out of the equation.
“The relative deprivation theory would predict that losers would consistently be at a disadvantage for health and longevity compared to winners, but this is not what we see,” says Dr. Link, a professor of sociomedical sciences at the Mailman School.
A more likely explanation, he notes, is that the advantages and disadvantages of winning depend on the mix of opportunities and stresses that they bring.
Winning an Emmy often leads to significant career opportunities that might not have been otherwise available. (The paper quotes actor John Larroquette saying “There’s no doubt that having an Emmy precedes you through the door.”)
On the other hand, Baseball Hall of Fame induction occurs after playing careers are over and therefore has little bearing on career opportunities and earnings.
As for presidential and vice presidential candidates, life circumstances do change for members of this elite club, but winning also brings significant risks: assassination threats and extreme stress from two of the world’s most demanding jobs.
The 15 men who led our country during the 20th century but died by the year 2008 lived an average of 1.9 years less than the average American male of the same age.
“Our findings provide an important correction to an overemphasis on relative deprivation as an explanation of health inequalities,” said Dr. Link.
“Relative deprivation likely plays some role in health inequalities, but it is not as important as the life circumstances and opportunities that result from one’s socioeconomic position.”
Study findings are published online in the American Sociological Review.