In the recent weeks, the world's attention has been turned to the turmoil in the Middle East. What started as a single episode of a private individual setting himself on fire in response to government oppression in Tunisia evolved into mass protests across Muslim countries.  Revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, civil war in Libya, protests in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and Saudi Arabia, all seem to have been fueled by the same force. What motivates the protesters in different countries to simultaneously rise up against their dictatorial governments?

Let's give the floor to a keen observer of human nature with extensive training in both psychology and violence. Ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Here the good doctor helps Clarice Starling, a fresh-faced FBI agent, to understand the motivation of a serial killer she is after.


First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek? 


He kills women... 


No. That is incidental. What is the first and principal thing he does? What needs does he serve by killing? 


Anger, um, social acceptance, and, huh, sexual frustrations, sir... 


No! He covets. That is his nature. And how do we begin to covet, Clarice? Do we seek out things to covet? Make an effort to answer now. 


No. We just... 


No. We begin by coveting what we see every day.

Indeed, we covet most that which is closest to us, sometimes to counterintuitive results.

            Consider a study commissioned by the U.S. Army during World War II. The Army was interested in what makes soldiers unhappy. A team of psychologists headed by Samuel Stouffer found a surprising source of unhappiness among soldiers: opportunities for promotions. What was surprising was that the pace of promotion had little to do with soldiers' satisfaction with the pace of promotion. Most discontented with their chances for promotion were soldiers from the air corps where, objectively speaking, they advanced at a quick pace.  On the other hand, the military police, where promotions were among the slowest in the army, were significantly more satisfied with their rate of promotion.

This paradox led Stouffer to formulate Relative Deprivation theory. This theory suggests that soldiers' discontent came from comparing themselves with  (and coveting) success of other soldiers in their unit. In units with fast promotions, soldiers had many chances to feel deprived when their peers were promoted and they were not. By contrast, in units with slow advancement, soldiers did not have many occasions to feel deprived, and thus felt satisfied. In both cases, the individual's satisfaction was informed less by objective measures than by subjective ones, such as which group the person compares himself to (reference group).

What group you compare yourself to is diagnostic about what you want in life and how you feel about what you already have. If everyone in your referent group owns a Ferrari, you will likely feel relatively deprived with "just" a Mercedes. On the other hand, if people in your referent group are riding bikes to work or school, you'll feel happy driving a Kia.

Relative deprivation theory is helpful in understanding events on a larger scale as well. Especially with electronic media carrying news and images around the world, referent groups can be as large as nations.  Relative deprivation theory has been applied to understanding rebellion from group comparisons within a country; now the theory appears to apply as well to comparisons across countries.  Influential Muslim clerics, and some non-clerics like Osama bin Laden, have been popularizing the idea of one Muslim nation-the Umma-for years. So when a man in Tunisia lit himself on fire, causing Tunisians to rebel and oust the discredited president Ben Ali, people in Egypt could feel relative deprivation-these other Muslims were getting ahead of them.  Egyptians coveted the freedom that Tunisians got.  Especially in Cairo, Egyptians could feel that their city, "Mother of the World," was being left behind by progress in a nowheresville Tunisia.

Summarizing a classic sociological treatment of revolutionary movements, psychologist John Sabini aptly said, "It is when people begin to see improvement, especially in neighbors' lot, that they find their current state unacceptable and are moved to rebellion."   Now the relevant neighbors can include neighboring countries.

The wildfire of revolutionary movements across the Muslim world is not the first example of relative deprivation motivating similar peoples to follow in each others' political footsteps. Among the former Soviet Union republics, several revolutions erupted in the early 2000s, starting with the Rose revolution in Georgia (2003), followed by the Orange revolution in Ukraine  (2004), then the Tulip revolution in Kyrgyzstan (2005) and a failed uprising in Belarus (2005). Similarly, the Saffron revolution led by Buddhist monks in Burma/Myanmar (2007) preceded widespread protests led by Buddhist monks against the Chinese government in Tibet (2008).

With mass communications making the world smaller, the neighbors whose gains we covet are becoming more diverse, and keeping up with the Joneses can mean a global showdown. 

Silence of the Lambs (1991). Orion Pictures. Director: J. Demme. Starring: Jody Foster, Anthony Hopkins.

Script excerpt from

Stouffer, S. A., E. A. Suchman, L. C. DeVinney, S. A. Star, and R. M. Williams, Jr. (1949). Studies in Social Psychology in World War II: The American Soldier. Vol. 1, Adjustment During Army Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 

James C. Davies (1962). Toward a Theory of Revolution. American Sociological Review, 27, pp. 5-19.

Sabini, J. (1995). Social Psychology, Second Edition. Norton: New York. (p. 327).

About the Authors

Clark McCauley Ph.D.

Clark McCauley, Ph.D., is the Rachel C. Hale Professor of Sciences and Mathematics and co-director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at Bryn Mawr College.

Sophia Moskalenko Ph.D.

Sophia Moskalenko is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (NC-START) and a consultant with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

You are reading


Jihadist Islamism Cannot Explain the San Bernardino Attacks

San Bernardino was not Islamic State, now what?

What to Do About ISIS?

Fighting the war of ideas is as important as dropping bombs.

Why Did ISIS Do It?

The logic of ISIS in Paris.