Yet I’d like to propose a different answer: what social scientists call reference group theory. The term “reference group” was pioneered by the social psychologist Herbert H. Hyman in 1942, and the theory was developed by the Columbia sociologist Robert K. Merton in the 1950s. It tells us that to comprehend how people think and behave, it’s important to understand the standards to which they compare themselves.
How is your life going? For most of us, the answer to that question means comparing our lives to the lives our parents were able to lead. As children and adolescents, we closely observed our parents. They were our first reference group.
And here is one solution to the death-rate conundrum: It’s likely that many non-college-educated whites are comparing themselves to a generation that had more opportunities than they have, whereas many blacks and Hispanics are comparing themselves to a generation that had fewer opportunities.
Reference group theory explains why people who have more may feel that they have less. What matters is to whom you are comparing yourself. It’s not that white workers are doing worse than African-Americans or Hispanics.He goes on to discuss his own research that led him to these conclusions. The value of Cherlin's discussion is that it provides a good theoretical perspective for what, at first, seemed like an otherwise hard to understand phenomenon. To be sure, others had notions that were on the same track, as I previously noted. But they were looking at the proximate causes--such as depression and the use of pain medications. Cherlin's explanation is more systematic and thus potentially testable, increasing the chance of figuring out possible interventions.