Leveling Up and Down: The Experiences of Benign and Malicious Envy
Niels van de Ven, Marcel Zeelenberg, and Rik Pieters
Envy is the painful emotion caused by the good fortune of others. This research empirically supports the
distinction between two qualitatively different types of envy, namely benign and malicious envy. It
reveals that the experience of benign envy leads to a moving-up motivation aimed at improving one’s
own position, whereas the experience of malicious envy leads to a pulling-down motivation aimed at
damaging the position of the superior other. Study 1 used guided recall of the two envy types in a culture
(the Netherlands) that has separate words for benign and malicious envy. Analyses of the experiential
content of these emotions found the predicted differences. Study 2 and 3 used one sample from the United
States and one from Spain, respectively, where a single word exists for both envy types. A latent class
analysis based on the experiential content of envy confirmed the existence of separate experiences of
benign and malicious envy in both these cultures as well. The authors discuss the implications of
distinguishing the two envy types for theories of cooperation, group performance, and Schadenfreude.
Keywords: envy, emotion, experiential content, cross cultural
“Envy is the great leveler: if it cannot level things up, it will level them
down.” Dorothy Sayers (1949, p. 771)
People around us often do better than we do; your brother may
be better in tennis, your neighbor drives a newer model of your car,
and a colleague receives the prestigious prize that you were after
yourself. Such upward comparisons often lead to the emotional
experience of envy. Aristotle (350BC/1954) already defined envy
as the pain caused by the good fortune of others. A more recent
definition is that “envy arises when a person lacks another’s
superior quality, achievement, or possession and either desires it or
wishes that the other lacked it” (Parrott & Smith, 1993, p. 908).
Envy is generally frowned upon (Schoeck, 1969), and is for
example one of the seven deadly sins in the Catholic tradition.
Despite the apparent darkness of envy, it is “one of the most
universal and deep-seated of human passions” (Russell, 1930, p.
82), and the tendency to feel envy is pervasive and seems to be
present in all cultures (Foster, 1972; Schoeck, 1969).
Interestingly, Sayers’ (1949) opening quote suggests that envy
might not be as homogeneous and may actually have two faces,
one leveling up and the other leveling down. These two facets of
envy, one being more positive and negative, have been speculated
upon more often. On the more positive side, envy is seen as a
motivational force that propels people to work harder to get what
others already have (Foster, 1972; Frank, 1999). Envy might be
one of the causes of phenomena such as keeping-up-with-the
Joneses (the strong desire to have what one’s peers have) that spurs
economic growth. An international advertising agency (Young &
Rubicam, 2006) actively uses envy as a marketing tool in its
campaigns, stating that products that evoke envy sell best. The
negative side of envy is also often stressed. Envy is found to
promote irrational decision-making (Beckman, Formby, Smith, &
Zheng, 2002; Hoelzl & Loewenstein, 2005) and to hinder coop-
eration (Parks, Rumble, & Posey, 2002) and group performance
(Duffy & Shaw, 2000; Vecchio, 2005). Schoeck (1969) proposed
that the fear of being envied prevents people from striving for
excellence, thereby hindering the progress of societies as a whole.
The leveling up and leveling down parts of envy are also present
in Parrott and Smith’s (1993) previously mentioned definition that
an envious person either desires the superior quality, achievement,
or possession, or wishes that the other lacked it.
Envy stems from an upward social comparison and can be
reduced by narrowing the gap between oneself and the other. This
can be achieved by moving oneself up to the level of the other, and
by pulling the other down to one’s own position. We propose here
that these two distinct envy experiences, one benign and the other
Envy is often equated with jealousy, but clear differences exist.
Whereas envy arises when another person has something that one misses,
jealousy arises when a person has something but is afraid of losing it to
another person (Neu, 1980). Because it is common for people to use the
emotion words envy and jealousy interchangeably in natural language, the
few available empirical treatments of the experience of envy were aimed at
distinguishing those two. Whereas at first the two experiences were thought
to be similar (Salovey & Rodin, 1986, 1989), later research found clear
differences in the experience of these emotions (Parrott & Smith, 1993;
Smith, Kim, & Parrott, 1988). It is important to note that it was also found
that the word jealousy was often used to indicate envy, but not the other
way around. This implies that when asked about envy, people will not
confuse this with jealousy.
Niels van de Ven and Marcel Zeelenberg, Department of Social Psy-
chology and TIBER (Tilburg Institute for Behavioral Economics Re-
search), Tilburg University, Tilburg, the Netherlands; Rik Pieters, Depart-
ment of Marketing and TIBER, Tilburg University, Tilburg, the
We thank Tom Gilovich, Sanne van Hooren, Marieke Rovers, Isabel
Sa´nchez, Marieke Schipper, Wijnand van Tilburg, and Jaione Yabar for
their help in conducting the studies.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Niels van
de Ven, Department of Social Psychology, Tilburg University, P.O. Box
90153, 5000LE Tilburg, the Netherlands. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Emotion © 2009 American Psychological Association
2009, Vol. 9, No. 3, 419– 429 1528-3542/09/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0015669
malicious, elicit these different behavioral expressions. As ex-
plained hereafter, it appears that it is not just the case that in some
situations envy will lead to moving-up and in other situations to
pulling-down, but rather that the emotional experiences of benign
and malicious envy differ, from the activated thoughts to the
The proposal of two different envy types has a longer history
(e.g., Elster, 1991; Foster, 1972; Kant, 1780/1997; Neu, 1980;
Parrott, 1991; Rawls, 1971; Smith, 1991; see for a review, Smith
& Kim, 2007). However, ideas about two envy types have not been
empirically tested, and these ideas differ in relevant aspects. Some
theorists state that the distinction between types of envy is based
upon the presence or absence of hostility, and that only envy with
a component of hostility is envy proper (Rawls, 1971; Smith &
Kim, 2007). According to them, envy without hostility resembles
admiration and is therefore not a form of envy proper. Yet some-
times benign envy is considered to be envy as well (Foster, 1972;
Neu, 1980), because despite this lack of hostility, benign envy also
still contains the pain or frustration caused by another’s superiority.
The issue therefore remains whether or not there are distinct
types of envy and what their experiential contents and behavioral
implications are. The current research aims to clarify this issue and
advance emotion theory by studying the experiential content of
benign and malicious envy. In the first study, we chose to inves-
tigate these types of envy in the context of two related but different
emotions: admiration and resentment. Comparing benign and ma-
licious envy to admiration and resentment is important because
theory suggests that benign envy shares some resemblance with
admiration, and malicious envy with resentment (e.g., Smith &
Kim, 2007). We expected benign and malicious envy to differ
from these related but different emotions, because envy typically
arises after a frustrating upward comparison and this comparison is
not necessary for either admiration or resentment.
When studying the potential two-facedness of the emotion of
envy, it is interesting to note that whereas some languages have a
single word, others have multiple words to refer to envy. Lan-
guages of the former kind are, among others, English (envy),
Spanish (envidia), and Italian (invidia). Languages of the latter
kind are, among others, Dutch (benijden and afgunst), Polish
(zazdros´c´and zawis´c´) and Thai (phonetically, ı`t-ch␣aand rı´t-yaa).
The fact that some cultures have different words to indicate envy
already indicates there might be different types (cf., Breugelmans
& Poortinga, 2006). Languages that have multiple words for envy
typically distinguish between a benign and a malicious form.
Although in English the default form of envy seems to be mali-
cious envy, people often use it in a more positive very as well.
People sometimes say “I envy you” to express that they are
impressed and would like to also have what the other has. Based
on these observations, we investigate whether the postulated two
different emotional experiences of envy actually exist in languages
and cultures with one as well as with two words for envy. To this
end, we propose a new methodology based on the experiential
content of the emotions combined with latent class analysis.
To determine how envy can result in the very different actions
of moving up or pulling down, we build on the idea that emotions
have a pragmatic function by preparing and motivating a person
for certain actions, by means of the specific feelings that become
activated (Arnold, 1969; Frijda, 1986; Zeelenberg & Pieters,
2006). To this aim, we analyzed the experiential content of envy,
using a componential approach (Frijda, Kuipers, & Ter Schure,
1989; Roseman, Wiest, & Swartz, 1994).
Figure 1 provides an overview of the steps we took to analyze
the two envy types. We first tested for differences between the two
envy types in a culture that uses separate words and then deter-
mined whether the same differences can be found in cultures with
a single word for envy. We conducted the first study in the
Netherlands, which has different words for the two envy types:
benijden (benign envy) and afgunst (malicious envy). Etymolog-
ically, benijden stems from the medieval word beniden, which
means being unable to bear something, and afgunst stems from niet
gunnen, which means to begrudge (Dutch Etymologic Online
The different origins of these Dutch words are
consistent with the idea that the envy types indeed are likely to
have different meanings. We first conducted a pilot study (N⫽48)
to determine whether these different Dutch words for envy were
actually perceived to be different. Participants read the following
Niels and Rik play in the first team of a good soccer club. Marcel, a
teammate of Niels and Rik, is selected to play for a professional team.
Niels feels benign envy toward Marcel [benijdt Marcel], Rik feels
malicious envy [Rik is afgunstig].
Next, participants indicated whether they thought Niels or Rik
would be more likely to feel or perform in a given way. The results
in Table 1 reveal that afgunst is associated with the pulling-down
motivation, whereas benijden is associated with the moving-up
This supports that indeed the two Dutch words reflect different
forms of envy and that it is useful to pursue further testing. In
Study 1, Dutch participants described a personal experience of
benijden (benign envy) or afgunst (malicious envy), after which
they responded to questions about the experiential content of their
experience. We expected the experiences of benign and malicious
envy to differ from each other and from the related emotions of
admiration and resentment.
The next step was to use these key experiential content compo-
nents to investigate whether the two envy types are also present in
cultures with a single word for envy. In Study 2, we asked U.S.
participants to recall an envy experience and answer questions
regarding this experience. We used latent class analysis that de-
tects different patterns of responses from a common set of data
(McCutcheon, 1987; Vermunt & Magidson, 2005). If we were to
find the same distinct pattern as in Study 1, it would constitute
strong support for the existence of the two envy types, even in a
language using a single word to describe both. Finally, Study 3 is
a replication of Study 2 in another language and country that has
one word for both types of envy, namely Spain.
Translations of envy were derived from informal communications with
students and faculty from the various countries and checked via Web
Checking the translation website lookwayup.com, both benijden and
afgunst translate into envy. Translating envy back to Dutch gives a few
more possible translations, of which benijden and afgunst are by far the
most common ones.
420 VAN DE VEN, ZEELENBERG, AND PIETERS
Participants recalled an experience of benign envy, malicious
envy, admiration, or resentment. Admiration and resentment are
included to establish the discriminant validity with respect to
related but different emotions. After describing these situations,
the participants answered questions regarding the experiential con-
tent, using the procedure of Roseman et al. (1994). We content
analyzed participants’ descriptions on the presence of the four
necessary preconditions that are thought to exist for envy (Smith,
2004). Smith proposed that being similar to the other, seeing the
situation as self-relevant, perceiving to have low control over
gaining the desired attribute and feeling that the other did not
deserve the advantage, are all necessary preconditions for envy to
arise. In addition, we also examined whether the participants
mentioned an explicit comparison in their description of the emo-
tional episode. We expected an explicit social comparison to be
characteristic of both types of envy, but not of resentment and
For the experiential content measures, we predicted malicious
envy to feel more frustrating, thoughts to be more about injustice
perceptions, and the resulting action (tendencies) to be aimed at
derogating and hurting the other, for example by gossiping about
the envied person. For benign envy, we predicted that people
would like the other person more and would like to remain close
to this other person, even though the emotion itself is a negative
experience. Actions tendencies and actions were predicted to
be aimed at improving one’s own situation.
Students at Tilburg University participated voluntarily (92
women and 68 men, M
⫽21 years). The study had a four-group
design (benign envy vs. malicious envy vs. admiration vs. resent-
ment), with 40 participants per condition.
Participants were asked to recall and describe a situation in
which they had a strong experience of benign envy (benijden in
Dutch), malicious envy (afgunst), admiration (bewondering), or
resentment (rancune). Next, participants rated on 9-point scales
how intense the experience had been (not at all to very), how long
ago it had happened (a very long time ago to only a short while
ago) and how easy it was to recall the experience (very difficult to
very easy). Differences in the intensity of the emotion could
obscure any differences between the emotions (see, e.g., Parrott &
Smith, 1993), and if any differences in intensity would exist, it
should be included as a covariate to make valid inferences.
Next, participants answered questions regarding the experienced
feelings, thoughts, action tendencies, actions, and emotivational
goals (cf., Roseman et al., 1994). For each of these content types,
four separate items were created based on our predictions, the first
two hypothesized to be characteristic of malicious envy, the other
two of benign envy. These questions are presented in Table 2.
Reported events. A multivariate analysis of variance
(MANOVA) with the recalled emotions as the between-subjects
variable revealed no significant differences in the intensity of the
Participants recall an episode of malicious
or benign envy and indicate its experiential
content and appraisals
Compare differences between envy types
on the experiential content and appraisals
Participants recall an episode of envy and
indicate its experiential content and
Perform a latent class analysis that tests
whether different classes of envious
Conclusion that different types of envy
exist is warranted
No support for
No support for
No support for
types of envy
Study 2 & 3
Figure 1. Analytic framework: identifying different types of envy.
Number of Participants Indicating Whether a Person
Experiencing Benign or Malicious Envy Would Be More Likely
To React in a Given Way (N ⫽48)
Who would be more likely to
Malicious envy item
Commit a mean foul against
Marcel if they would play
against each other? 7 41 .001
Hope that Marcel will not make
it as a professional player? 9 39 .001
Benign envy item
Be more motivated to become a
professional player himself? 38 10 .001
Start training more? 42 6 .001
BENIGN AND MALICIOUS ENVY
emotions recalled, how long ago it was that they had occurred, and
the ease with which they could be recalled, F(3, 375) ⫽1.63, p⫽
⫽.03, which is desirable. Therefore, any differences we
found between the conditions cannot be explained by differences
in the intensity of the recalled experiences. All reported events and
emotions were fairly intense (M⫽7.34, SD ⫽1.08), recent (M⫽
5.38, SD ⫽2.34), and easy to imagine (M⫽6.40, SD ⫽2.27, all
measured on 9-point scales with higher scores indicating the
situation to be more intense, more recent, and more easy to
For the content analysis, two independent judges indicated
whether the participant (a) made an explicit comparison with
another person, (b) indicated to be similar to the other, (c) indi-
cated that the domain was relevant for his or her self-view, (dd)
indicated to have little control over the situation, and (e) thought
something was unfair or undeserved. Average agreement between
the raters was 86%, and remaining differences were resolved by
discussion. The results of this content analysis (see Table 3) partly
support Smith’s (2004) idea about envy’s necessary preconditions.
The main finding is that similarity, domain relevance, low per-
ceived control, and perceived unfairness are all characteristic of
malicious envy, but only the first two are strong characteristics of
benign envy. The content analysis also revealed that an important
aspect of envy is whether people made an explicit comparison
between oneself and another person. Such comparisons were made
in virtually all stories of benign and malicious envy, whereas
hardly any direct comparisons were made in the admiration and
resentment stories. For example, one of the benign envy stories
stated, “My friend graduated with a 9 (out of 10). I felt benign envy
as my own graduation was a tough and difficult experience, and I
will probably barely pass it with a 6.” A typical admiration story
stated, “I admired a 14-year old swimmer who competed in the last
Experiential content. All results are presented in Table 2. We
performed a MANOVA with emotion condition as the between-
subjects variable and the experiential content questions as the
dependent variables. As expected, there was a strong general effect
of recalled emotion on the experiential content, F(60, 410) ⫽8.16,
⫽.54. Contrast analyses between benign and mali-
cious envy indicated that 18 out of the 20 questions differed
significantly, all in the predicted direction. We will discuss some
of the main findings further in the general discussion.
These findings provide consistent support for distinguishing the
experience of the two types of envy, a benign and a malicious
form, and that these envy types also differ from closely related
other emotions. The effects on the actions taken and the emotiva-
tional goals are especially pronounced, and these support the
Experiential Content of Benign Envy, Malicious Envy, Admiration, and Resentment in Study 1
F(3, 156) AB AC BD
Felt frustrated 6.53 (2.15) 7.83 (1.22) 1.70 (1.24) 7.78 (1.41) 139.95
ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱⴱⴱ
Felt shame for my thoughts 4.35 (2.65) 3.97 (2.77) 1.75 (1.33) 3.22 (2.28) 9.76
Felt admiration for the other person 6.25 (2.65) 3.57 (2.83) 7.35 (2.39) 1.67 (1.07) 48.37
ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱ ⴱⴱⴱ
Felt pleasant 3.50 (2.03) 2.30 (1.40) 6.78 (1.99) 1.97 (1.52) 69.03
ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱⴱ ⴱⴱⴱ
Thought of injustice being done to me 3.82 (2.98) 6.30 (2.33) 1.87 (1.52) 7.45 (2.12) 47.34
ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱ
Thought negatively about myself 4.50 (2.73) 3.92 (2.69) 2.05 (1.62) 3.70 (2.60) 7.34
Thought positively about other 5.70 (2.57) 3.15 (2.75) 8.52 (0.75) 1.77 (1.37) 84.00
ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱⴱ
Thought of improving my situation 6.25 (2.56) 5.13 (2.49) 5.65 (2.38) 5.38 (2.50) 1.52
Wanted to take something from other 2.95 (2.51) 4.10 (2.73) 2.42 (2.21) 5.55 (2.42) 12.54
ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱ ⴱⴱ
Wanted to degrade other 2.90 (2.24) 4.47 (2.84) 1.70 (1.34) 6.55 (2.28) 35.10
ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱⴱ ⴱ ⴱⴱⴱ
Wanted to improve own position 6.55 (2.65) 5.00 (2.62) 5.08 (2.90) 4.97 (2.76) 2.34
Wanted to be near other 6.43 (2.17) 3.05 (2.72) 7.10 (1.87) 2.12 (1.80) 51.28
Tried to hurt the others’ position 2.17 (2.09) 3.45 (2.56) 1.57 (1.30) 5.25 (2.43) 22.87
ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱⴱ ⴱⴱⴱ
Talked negatively about other 3.50 (2.76) 6.43 (2.56) 2.07 (1.83) 7.58 (1.69) 50.86
ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱⴱ ⴱⴱ
Complimented the other sincerely 5.73 (2.61) 3.47 (2.78) 7.45 (2.38) 1.70 (1.16) 47.19
ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱⴱⴱ
Reacted actively 6.15 (1.97) 4.47 (2.47) 6.63 (1.93) 5.93 (2.19) 7.42
ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱⴱ
Hoped the other would fail in something 3.85 (2.82) 6.00 (2.60) 1.77 (1.44) 7.15 (2.14) 42.27
ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱ
Hoped for justice to be done 5.95 (2.35) 7.40 (1.72) 4.25 (3.05) 7.93 (1.31) 22.31
ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱⴱ ⴱⴱⴱ
Hoped the other would do well 6.38 (2.34) 4.50 (2.72) 8.43 (0.93) 2.85 (2.02) 51.95
ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱⴱⴱ
Hoped to remain/become friends with other 6.63 (2.22) 4.15 (2.96) 7.48 (1.65) 2.87 (2.38) 33.15
ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱⴱⴱ ⴱ
Note. Means and SDs of items regarding the experiential content (n⫽40 per conditson). All answers on a 9-point scale, ranging from 0 (not at all)to
8(very much so). The contrasts compare benign to malicious envy (AB), benign envy to admiration (AC), and malicious envy to resentment (BD).
422 VAN DE VEN, ZEELENBERG, AND PIETERS
apparent paradox between the views of envy as a sin aimed at
degrading the superior other and an envy that is a motivational
force that drives aspiration levels. Whereas the moving-up moti-
vation of benign envy leads to positive improvement for oneself,
malicious envy can be harmful to others because the motivations
are aimed at pulling-down the other from the superior position.
Unexpectedly, malicious envy did not elicit more feelings of
shame, nor did people think more negatively about themselves
than those in the benign envy condition. A reason for this might be
that people who experience malicious envy do not feel that
ashamed, because they feel that their negative attitude toward the
other is justified. People who feel benign envy might still feel
somewhat ashamed of their thoughts, not because they feel nega-
tive toward the envied person, but because they realize that they
are in an inferior position. This remains speculative however, and
additional research might clarify when and why experiencing envy
elicits feelings of inferiority or shame, and when it does not.
The two types of envy also systematically differed from the
related emotions of resentment and admiration, which is important.
Malicious envy resembles resentment in some ways. Parrott and
colleagues (Parrott, 1991; Smith, Parrott, Ozer, & Moniz, 1994)
already reasoned that malicious envy and resentment are much
alike, but that they differ in the justifiability of the emotion.
Indeed, we find that the negative feelings and consequences are
more pronounced for resentment, and this is likely because the
emotional experience is attributed more to the willful behavior of
the other person. A more important difference in our view, how-
ever, is that malicious envy arises after an explicit comparison
between oneself and the other, while resentment does not contain
such a comparison.
Benign envy resembles admiration, although benign envy feels
unpleasant and frustrating while admiration is a pleasant emotion
to experience. Furthermore, with benign envy there is more neg-
ativity toward the other, and it is more motivating than admiration.
A reason for these differences might be that when one admires a
person an explicit comparison is not necessarily made, while this
is the case for benign envy. The resulting frustration from this
upward comparison feels negative but does motivate to attain more
Now that the typical experiential differences between the two
types of envy are established, we wanted to make sure that the
distinction is not just based upon concepts that only exist in the
Dutch language. Therefore, we conducted a study to test our
hypothesis in the United States, where the single label of envy
refers to both types. We expected that if people were asked to
describe an experience of envy, some would describe benign envy
and others would describe malicious envy. To explore this, we
used latent class analysis (LCA; McCutcheon, 1987). LCA at-
tempts to create subgroups with different response patterns that
arise from a common condition, in this case the usage of the
emotion word envy. LCA is similar to cluster analysis, but instead
has statistical criteria to determine the optimal number of classes
(notably the Bayesian Information Criterion, BIC). Another ad-
vantage of LCA is that it uses model-based probabilities to classify
cases, whereas cluster analysis groups cases only via the distance
between the cases, without firm statistical criteria (for a recent
application of LCA in psychology, see Quaiser-Pohl, Geiser, &
Lehmann, 2006). Thus, to support the idea that two types of envy
exist, the LCA should find two firm classes of which the response
patterns closely resemble those of benign and malicious envy that
were found in Study 1. The lower part of Figure 1 summarizes
these steps of our analytic approach.
Seventy undergraduate students of Cornell University in the
United States (37 females, M
⫽20 years) participated in this
study that had a one-group design. They were asked to write one
or two sentences about a situation in which they experienced envy.
Next, they answered questions selected to differentiate between
benign and malicious envy, based on the findings of Study 1.
There were six items related to the experiential content (three for
both types of envy), and one for the item in the content analysis
that distinguished the types of envy best, namely a feeling of
unfairness (see Table 4).
Results and Discussion
All items were entered as indicators in the LCA. We ran the
LCA for one to four subgroups (classes), using the program
LatentGOLD 4.0 (Vermunt & Magidson, 2005). Of the four anal-
yses, the solution with the lowest BIC value was chosen (see
Raftery, 1996, for model selection based on BIC values). As
hypothesized, the solution with two classes had the lowest BIC
value (the values were 1264, 1214, 1216, and 1222 for a one-,
Content Analysis of Recalled Emotional Episodes in Study 1
Present in story?
Explicit comparison 70.0
Similar to other 92.5
Self-relevance of domain 90.0
Low perceived control 52.5
Perceived unfairness 30.0
Note. Percentages indicate the number of stories in which the statement was deemed present. Different superscripts indicate significant differences
between the emotion conditions, with p⬍.05.
BENIGN AND MALICIOUS ENVY
two-, three-, and four-subgroup solution, respectively). The esti-
mated percentage of classification errors for this solution was only
4%, which indicated that the two classes are well separated (Ver-
munt & Magidson, 2005). Table 4 presents the effects of the
classes on the indicators and the average scores on the questions
for each class. As becomes clear from the table, the differences in
means of the two classes fit the distinction between benign and
malicious envy remarkably well. Malicious envy felt much more
frustrating, the experience led to a motivation to hurt the other, and
one hoped that the other would fail in something. For benign envy,
the other was liked more, the situation was more inspiring, and one
tried harder to attain more for oneself (the latter being marginally
The results of Study 2 show that even though the English
language has only a single word for envy, the two types of envy
can be distinguished reliably. Of interest, when asked to report on
envy, about half of the participants described an emotional expe-
rience of benign envy, the other half one of malicious envy.
Although the LCA could potentially indicate any number of
classes between one and four, the distinction in two classes was
best, which is reassuring. Combined with the close resemblance to
the results of Study 1, the current findings support the hypothesis
that two different kinds of envy exist and that these are expressed
in distinct experiential patterns.
Study 3 was conducted to address three potential limitations of
the earlier studies. First, Study 3 measures the experiential content
of envy at the same day the emotion was experienced. In our
previous studies, we asked participants to recall an episode in their
life in which they had experienced envy. This could have influ-
enced the results as participants might have only been able to recall
experiences of extreme envy, or we might also have “forced”
people who hardly ever experience envy to come up with an
instance of it. To prevent this, the participants in Study 3 answered
a short question every evening, namely whether they had experi-
enced envy that day. If they indicated that they had, they were
subsequently asked to answer the questions regarding the experi-
ential content of that envious experience. Earlier research has
shown that such end-of-the-day recall methods may be more
precise than other methods of measuring emotional events over a
longer period of time (Ptacek, Smith, Espe, & Raffety, 1994) and
yield practically similar results as direct experience sampling at the
moment itself would (Kahneman, Krueger, Schkade, Schwarz, &
Second, because some of the questions we used in Study 2 could
also be interpreted as appraisals of the situation instead of the
experiential content of the emotion, we used different questions in
Study 3. The questions now explicitly stated “When I experienced
envy” to focus the attention to the experience itself, not the
situation that had elicited the emotion. Using this statement fol-
lows suggestions by Roseman et al. (1994), who explained the
importance of asking for the experience to measure the experien-
tial content of an emotion. This way, we explicitly tapped into the
experience of the types of envy and not the appraisals of the
situation that led to them, as could have potentially been the case
in Study 2.
Finally, we ran the current study in Spain, another country with
only a single word for envy (envidia). Finding support for the two
types of envy in yet another culture with a different language
would strengthen the case for a distinction between benign and
malicious envy, at least in three distinct western cultures.
Forty-nine participants indicated on a daily basis whether they
had experienced envy that day for a period of 2 weeks. Of these
participants, 10 indicated that they had not experienced envy
during the period of study and were therefore dropped from the
analysis. The remaining sample consisted of 25 females, 10 males,
and 4 of which the gender was unknown (M
Twenty-six lived in Bilbao (in the northwestern part of Spain) and
13 in Valencia (in the southeast of Spain).
The study again had a
There was no difference between the regions on the experiential
content questions, F(7, 31) ⫽1.08, p⫽.402, nor on the distribution of the
types of envy,
(N⫽39) ⫽1.95, p⫽.163.
Results of Latent Class Analysis on the Experiential Content of Envy in the United States in Study 2
Effect of cluster on Indicator
Malicious envy Wald pr
I liked the other 6.42 (1.57) 4.78 (2.09) ⫺0.24 .001 .15
I felt inspired by the other 4.45 (2.53) 2.44 (2.09) ⫺0.20 .001 .20
I tried harder to achieve my goals 5.26 (2.04) 4.44 (2.23) ⫺0.13 .055 .06
The experience felt frustrating 3.50 (2.00) 6.50 (1.24) 0.59 .001 .51
I wanted to hurt the other 0.24 (0.49) 2.88 (2.24) 0.53 .001 .27
I hoped that the other would fail something 0.82 (1.45) 4.84 (2.00) 0.39 .001 .41
I considered the situation to be unfair 2.76 (2.53) 4.25 (2.50) 0.25 .004 .27
Note. The Wald statistics indicate the size of the effect of the clusters on the indicators. Means are the average responses of the cases in each class.
Responses were provided on a 9-point scales, ranging from 0 (not at all)to8(very much so). Because our predictions specify the direction of the differences
between the classes, one-sided p-values are reported.
424 VAN DE VEN, ZEELENBERG, AND PIETERS
Participants received a questionnaire on which they indicated
every evening whether they had experienced envy that day. If they
had, they were instructed to open a sealed envelope that contained
another questionnaire on envy. On this questionnaire, the partici-
pants first briefly described their experience of envy, after which
they answered a number of questions regarding the experiential
content. All questions were introduced with the term “When I
experienced envy” to make it explicit that the questions were about
the experience of envy itself, not about the eliciting conditions.
The questions can be found in Table 5. Questions were scored on
a 3-point scale, with ⫺1(no),0(somewhat)and1(yes).
On average, the participants who had experienced envy did so
on average after 5.21 days (SD ⫽3.40).
The median response of
all participants, including those that indicated that they had not
experienced envy, was also 5 days.
A LCA on the experiential content of the Spanish experiences of
envidia confirmed the findings of Studies 1 and 2 that two types of
envy exist. Similar to what we had found in Study 2, the solution
with two clusters of responses was the best having the lowest BIC
(211, 163, 164, and 185 for a 1, 2, three, and four class solution
respectively). The estimated number of classification errors was
again very low (2%). As the results in Table 5 reveal, the pattern
of responses neatly maps unto the two types of envy found before,
thereby replicating the results of the previous studies. Those who
were maliciously envious felt cold toward the envied person and
frustrated, hoped the envied person would fail in something, and
complained to someone else about this person more than those
experiencing benign envy. Participants who experienced benign
envy felt less unpleasant, more inspired, indicated to have tried
harder to attain something similar for themselves, and compli-
mented the envied person more than those who experienced ma-
licious envy. Of these participants, 15 out of 39 (38%) reported on
an instance of benign envy, the others on malicious envy.
When asked to recall a situation of envidia, the Spanish word for
envy, these recalled episodes could again be classified as either
benign or malicious envy. Furthermore, participants recalled and
rated these experiences on the day that they had experienced the
emotions. This overcomes a potential limitation that recalling
situations from a relatively longer time ago might have, and
thereby strengthens the case for the two types of envy.
We provide empirical evidence for two qualitatively different
types of envy that differ in their experiential content. In Study 1 we
found that people in the Netherlands describe different types of
envy if they report on benijden (benign envy) or afgunst (malicious
envy). Study 2 and 3 replicated these findings in the United States
and Spain respectively, where a single word denotes the emotion
of envy. A latent class analysis found that people in these counties
actually still describe two distinct envy types that are fully con-
sistent with the distinction found in Study 1. Both types of envy are
aimed at leveling the difference between oneself and the superior
other. Yet, the experience of malicious envy leads to action ten-
dencies aimed at pulling-down the superior other; whereas the
tendencies of benign envy are aimed at moving-up to the superior
position oneself. Let us first describe the experiences of benign and
malicious envy, before continuing to the implications of these
What Envy Is
Current findings. Benign envy is the more uplifting type of
envy: people like and admire the comparison other more, want to
be closer to this other person, and give more compliments than
those experiencing malicious envy. On top of this, they want to
improve their own position by moving-up. It is striking that they
still feel a high level of frustration and inferiority, but the other
aspects of the experience and the consequences are rather positive.
We expect that exactly this frustration is what triggers the positive
motivation that results from benign envy, as the frustration signals
There was no difference in the number of days it took for a person to
experience benign envy (5.20 days, SD ⫽3.28) or malicious envy (5.21
days, SD ⫽3.55), F(1, 37) ⬍.01, p⫽.994.
Results of Latent Class Analysis on the Experiential Content of Envy in Spain in Study 3
When I experienced envy. . .
Effect of cluster on indicator
Malicious envy Wald pr
It felt pleasant ⫺0.20 (0.41) ⫺1.00 (0.00) 4.47 .017 .61
I felt inspired by the person whom I envied 0.20 (0.68) ⫺0.88 (0.34) 8.07 .003 .48
I tried harder to achieve my goals 0.54 (0.52) ⫺0.23 (0.71) 4.42 .018 .36
I complimented the other for his or her success 0.67 (0.62) ⫺0.54 (0.72) 8.96 .002 .46
I felt cold toward the person whom I envied ⫺0.80 (0.41) ⫺0.04 (0.91) 5.71 .009 .21
It felt frustrating ⫺0.20 (0.68) 0.33 (0.82) 5.56 .039 .10
I hoped that the person whom I envied would fail something ⫺1.00 (0.00) ⫺0.46 (0.72) 2.38 .060 .19
I complained to someone else about the person whom I envied ⫺0.87 (0.35) ⫺0.08 (0.93) 3.11 .009 .21
Note. The Wald statistics indicate the size of the effect of the clusters on the indicators. Means are the average responses of the cases in each class.
Responses were scored on a 3-point scales, with ⫺1(no/not much),0(somewhat), and ⫹1(yes/a lot). Because our predictions specify the direction of
the differences between the classes, one-sided p-values are reported.
BENIGN AND MALICIOUS ENVY
to the person that the coveted object is worth striving for (see also
Johnson & Stapel, 2007, for a similar finding in research on social
comparisons). Although benign envy did not receive much atten-
tion in the literature so far, the finding that about half the partic-
ipants in the United States and one in three participants in Spain
spontaneously thought of an experience of benign envy when
prompted for envy, indicates that it is an important facet if envy.
Note that the exact percentage should be interpreted with care of
course, as it is also the more social desirable answer.
Benign envy seems to be a big motivator for people, inspiring
them to attain more for themselves. As such, this emotion could be
the driving force of phenomena such as “keeping up with the
Joneses,” the idea that people want to keep up with what their
peers have. Although a continuous need to want more certainly has
its drawbacks (Frank, 1999), additional research into an emotion
that might spur economic growth seems important.
Malicious envy is clearly a negative experience. People experi-
encing this emotion feel frustrated, think that injustice is being
done to them, are more willing to degrade, take something from
and gossip about the comparison other, are more likely to actually
try to hurt the other, and hope that the other would fail something.
Although the pulling-down motivation that results from malicious
envy can explain why envy is often seen as a sin, people do not
seem to experience it that way for themselves. People only feel
moderately ashamed for their thoughts and they even consider
their feelings to be morally justified. This discrepancy is what
makes malicious envy such an interesting topic for further re-
search; an emotion condemned by others, justified by oneself,
which results in behavior aimed at hurting another person can have
serious consequences for oneself and for others.
Given the obtained differences on all aspects of the experiential
content, we are confident to conclude that it is not the case that
envy merely leads to different behavior in different situations, but
that the entire experience of malicious and benign envy is differ-
ent. Benign and malicious envy differ on the elicited thoughts,
feelings, and action tendencies. Based on Parrott and Smith’s
(1993) definition of envy, we believe that the current research
allows proposing more specific definitions for the different types
of envy: benign and malicious envy are both unpleasant and
frustrating experiences, that arise from a realization that one lacks
another’s superior quality, achievement or possession, but benign
envy results in a motivation to gain the coveted object for oneself
as well, whereas malicious envy results in a wish for the other to
So far, we have studied three western cultures and the question
remains whether the two types of envy also exist in nonwestern
cultures. Some hints exist that suggest that this is likely to be the
case, as some other cultures have two words for a more positive
and a more negative envy as well (e.g., Polish and Thai). Still other
languages might not have a single noun for benign envy, but do use
combinations of words to express it. For example in Russia, an
experience of benign envy is called “white envy.”
An interesting question is whether the two types of envy are
mutually exclusive experiences, or whether these experiences can
overlap. The latent class analysis suggests that two separate, mu-
tually exclusive classes exist. However, the latent class analysis
forces cases into a cluster, which might obscure the idea that they
can co-occur. If we take a closer look at the ratings, we find that
a combined score of the questions for benign envy and those of
malicious envy are correlated negatively; r(70) ⫽⫺.36, p⫽.003
in Study 2 and r(39) ⫽⫺.49, p⫽.001 in Study 3. This suggests
that, in general, the more one experiences one type of envy, the
less one experiences the other type. Furthermore, a median split on
both these combined measures shows that across the experiments,
only 13% is classified as scoring high on both types (the far
majority of cases scores high on one type of envy and low on the
other). This suggests that it is possible to experience both types of
envy at the same time, but that it does not occur often.
Given the reluctance of people to admit that they are envious,
the current research also provides some guidance to measure envy
in future research. Especially the questions used in Study 3 are
good for measuring differences between malicious and benign
envy in a relatively indirect way by asking for the experiential
content instead of the socially undesirable concept of envy. Fur-
thermore, asking whether someone actually compares him- or
herself to another person is good for contrasting both types of envy
with other emotions, such as admiration and resentment.
Fit with previous findings. Besides contrasting malicious and
benign envy, we also tested how they differ from the related
emotions admiration and resentment. Smith (2000) described how
emotions that can result from social comparisons differ on three
factors (upward vs. downward comparison; self vs. other vs. dual
focus; high vs. low perceived control). In that conceptualization,
admiration and resentment are both emotions that arise from an
upward comparison, with a focus on the other person. Resentment
is placed on the “contrastive” comparison side, with envy next to
it. The difference with envy, hypothesized Smith, is that envy
arises from a dual focus (on oneself and the other person), while
resentment mainly arises from a focus on the other person. Admi-
ration is placed on the “assimilative” comparison side, with inspi-
ration next to it. They differ in the same way that resentment
differs from envy; inspiration has a dual focus and admiration
focuses on the other person. Our current findings suggest that
having a dual focus is a defining feature of both types of envy. We
think that what Smith labeled as envy is actually malicious envy.
Furthermore, besides inspiration we would like to position benign
envy as an assimilative upward comparison with a dual focus.
Whereas inspiration is an overall positive feeling, benign envy still
feels negative and frustrating, but does lead to a desire for im-
provement as well.
The analysis of the content of the personal emotional episodes
gives some support for Smith’s (2004) idea concerning the neces-
sary preconditions for envy to arise. Both types of envy are more
likely after one compares to the other person, as is the case when
one is more similar and the domain is relevant (Tesser & Smith,
1980). However, Smith’s idea that it is characteristic of envy to
perceive the situation as unfair and to feel low control is actually
only characteristic of malicious envy. This indicates that envy can
result without feelings of unfairness and perceived low control, but
the resulting envy will be benign envy and not malicious envy.
Based on Smith’s (2004) ideas, we found that the eliciting
patterns of benign and malicious envy mainly differ on whether a
person feels that injustice is being done. Previous studies (Feather,
1994; Smith et al., 1994) found an effect of feelings of undeserved-
ness and subjective injustice on the hostility in envy. We find
something similar, where malicious envy (which leads to hostility)
is more likely to be elicited in undeserved situations, while benign
envy is more likely to be elicited in situations that are deserved.
426 VAN DE VEN, ZEELENBERG, AND PIETERS
Everything that influences whether people think it is deserved for
the other person to have what he or she has should increase the
likelihood of eliciting benign envy over malicious envy. In this
way, we predict that for example liking the other person more
lowers the chance for malicious envy to arise, because people are
probably more likely to consider a liked person to deserve some-
thing more than a disliked person.
Besides investigating this subjective injustice-hostility link in
envy, Smith et al. (1994) also found that feelings of inferiority
were related to depressive feelings. Their research investigated
whether these feelings were related within an experience of envy,
but not whether these experiences were different types of envy. A
person can think the situation is undeserved and therefore hostile,
but at the same time feel inferior and subsequently depressed. We
do not contest that a link between feelings of inferiority and
depression exists in envy, but our data suggests that this is not a
separate type of envy. If this would have been the case, an envy
type that had less motivational tendencies for self-improvement
should have been found in our latent class analyses. Feelings of
inferiority were present in both malicious and benign envy (see
Study 1), and some depressive feelings are thus likely to exist in
both types of envy.
Elster (1991) linked envy to counterfactuals, stating that any-
thing that increases the chances of thinking “it could have been
me” increases envy. Based on the differences in the perceived
undeservedness characteristic of malicious envy, malicious envy
seems characterized by thoughts like “it should have been me,”
while benign envy seems characterized more by thoughts like “it
could have been me.” Earlier research has already found that small
differences in counterfactual thought can evoke qualitatively dif-
ferent emotions. Counterfactual thoughts like “if only I weren’t”
evoke shame, while thoughts like “if only I hadn’t” evoke guilt
(Niedenthal, Tangney, & Gavanski, 1994). Because envy is inher-
ently a comparison-based emotion (one compares one’s own sit-
uation to that of another), it is potentially fruitful to link the
theories on counterfactuals to those of envy.
What Envy Does
The effect of envy on behavior has been explored in various
domains, and in some of those the current distinction between
types of envy can help to clarify or extend earlier findings. For
example, a study by Parks et al. (2002) found that people experi-
encing envy became less cooperative in a social dilemma game.
However, it remains unclear in their study which motivation
caused this drop in cooperative behavior: did people want to
pull-down the superior other by not cooperating, or did they want
to move-up by being selfish? In the paradigm used by Parks et al.
both these motivations lead to the selfish behavior found in their
study, but in other settings the separation of these motives might
lead to different behavior. Similarly, a longitudinal study for the
effects of envy on group performance (Duffy & Shaw, 2000) found
a negative effect of envy on group performance, group cohesion,
and social loafing. The envy measure consisted of questions mea-
suring malicious envy (e.g., feelings of frustration, unfairness, and
perceived injustice), and was thus not surprisingly related to these
negative effects. The effects of benign envy on group performance
are harder to predict. Although it motivates people to try to
improve one’s own position, it can result in positive behavior for
the group (extra effort) or in behavior that is potentially harmful
There is a debate on the possible role of envy as a cause of
Schadenfreude (the pleasure at the misfortune of others). Some
research finds that envy promotes Schadenfreude (Smith et al.,
1996; Van Dijk, Ouwerkerk, Goslinga, & Nieweg, 2005), while
other research suggests that other negative feelings such as
disliking the other (Hareli & Weiner, 2002) or resentment
(Feather & Sherman, 2002) are better predictors of Schaden-
freude. Van Dijk, Ouwerkerk, Goslinga, Nieweg, and Galucci
(2006) reviewed the previous work on the envy-Schadenfreude
link, and noticed that research finding an effect of envy on
Schadenfreude used hostility-related questions as a measure of
envy, while research not finding such an effect used more
desire-related questions. Linking the idea of Van Dijk et al. to
our current research, it seems straightforward to predict that
malicious envy is related to feelings of Schadenfreude, while
benign envy is not.
The Current Approach
Our current findings are consistent with the findings of
Breugelmans and Poortinga (2006) that it is not necessary to have
a word for a certain emotion for it to be experienced. They studied
the Rara´muri (Mexican Indians), who have only one word that
indicates both shame and guilt. Breugelmans and Poortinga used
the following procedure to investigate whether the Rara´muri ex-
perience this emotion for which they do not have a word. First,
emotion specific situations were created among the Javanese
(Indonesia) who do have two words for the emotions, to come
up with stories that should elicit either shame or guilt. They
then asked other Javanese and Dutch students to rate the emo-
tion components, as a baseline for comparison with the re-
sponses of the Rara´muri. Finally, the Rara´muri rated the stories,
and it was found that despite note having two words for these
experiences, they were still clearly felt. Such an elaborate
procedure of creating the stories was necessary to prevent
biases that might result from using stories created in western
countries as test material for the Rara´muri.
Our current approach (as depicted in Figure 1) provides a
potentially less elaborate way of studying emotions (or other
concepts) cross-culturally. Instead of creating emotion-specific
stories in one culture and using those to test for the existence of the
emotions in another, the two-step approach proposed here allows
to directly investigate cultures that have a single word for multiple
concepts, by using the idiosyncratic situations and experience of
the participants themselves. For example, the Rara´muri could be
asked to recall a situation in which they experienced riwe´rama
(their word for both shame and guilt). We speculate that latent
class analyses on question ratings regarding this story would
separate experiences of shame and guilt. In this way, the emotional
experience itself is used for analysis, which we believe to be purer,
because it is in this experiential content where the difference
between emotions resides. Thus, we believe that the methodology
proposed here holds further promise for theory development on
distinguishing related emotion constructs, both within and between
BENIGN AND MALICIOUS ENVY
To conclude, we found empirical support for the existence of
two types of envy. One is a malicious envy that motivates to
damage the position of the envied person, while the other is
benign envy that motivates to attain more for oneself. The
current research is consistent with the conceptualization of envy
as “the great leveler” as put forward by the opening quote of
Sayers (1949). Or, to be more precise, envy are the great
levelers: whereas benign envy levels things up, malicious envy
levels them down.
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Received September 26, 2007
Revision received January 28, 2009
Accepted January 29, 2009 䡲
BENIGN AND MALICIOUS ENVY