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Losers revenge: Presidents and Hall of Famers don't live longer

March 12, 2013|By Geoffrey Mohan
  • Barbara Walters is a multiple Emmy winner and a frequent also-ran.
Barbara Walters is a multiple Emmy winner and a frequent also-ran. (Chris Pizzello / Invision )

Losers, also-rans, the 99% and underachievers may have reason to cheer.

Winning an Emmy, a presidential election or a spot in the baseball Hall of Fame does not mean you live longer and better, according to a new study.

Researchers at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health compared baseball Hall of Fame inductees, Emmy Award winners and former presidents and vice presidents with their losing adversaries and found that their heightened socioeconomic status didn't confer a great advantage for longevity and health.

Results were all over the map - some positive, some negative, some too negligible to mean much.

The study relies on a psychological concept called relative deprivation, which has been used to explain quantifiable links between hierarchy and health.

It's not just that the very rich live better than the very poor, which can be explained by the lack of health care and a more hazardous living circumstance of "Les Miserables." It also applies to a solidly middle-class person relative to a more wealthy person, according to the theory's adherents. Lower status is a stress, by itself.

You could call it the "sore loser" effect: the sense that you didn't get what you deserved, and didn't reap the rewards or advantages being enjoyed by others.

Relative position in the social pecking order can have a big health and societal effect, and has been linked to deviant behavior and the rise of social movements (Occupy Wall Street comes to mind), up to and including civil war. Alternatively, losers could decide to drink heavily, gorge on ice cream and pick fights with the bodyguards of winners.

Or so it has been thought. The report, in the current American Sociological Review, puts a slight bump in that logical path. Access to resources and opportunity is more important than relative status, it concludes.

The team found that Emmy-winning actors enjoyed 2.7 years of additional gloating than their bitter also-ran peers. There is bad news for the oft-overlooked writers, though: winning a screenplay Emmy translated to a shorter lifespan, by three years.

Baseball Hall of Fame inductees didn't enjoy any advantage.

President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden might want to take note: The White House weighs heavily on them. Presidents and vice presidents lose an average of 5.3 years from their lives compared with the candidates they beat. So Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan can enjoy a bit of schadenfreude.

Of course, you have to factor out assassination, which really dampens life expectancy. Researchers did so, and found the presidential disadvantage remains.

"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," said Bruce Link, a professor of sociomedical sciences at the Mailman School.

The Emmy-Hall of Fame differential may be explained by timing: actors get an Emmy during their career and that can open doors to higher earning. But baseball players get voted into the Hall of Fame after they've hung up their cleats.

Politicians should be careful what they wish for: The 15 presidents of the 20th century who died by 2008 lived an average of 1.9 years less than the average American male of the same age, the studies conclude.

"Our findings provide an important correction to an overemphasis on relative deprivation as an explanation of health inequalities," said 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."

There was no word on what a Pulitzer Prize in journalism might confer.

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