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Envy and Social Comparison

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  • Tilburg University and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
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Abstract

Upward social comparison can give rise to the emotion of envy: the pain caused by the good fortune of others. We explain what envy is, and what the possible function of envy is to an organism experiencing it. We provide an overview of past work on envy, the distinction between two subtypes (benign and malicious envy), possible antecedents of envy, possible consequences of envy, and the responses to being envied by others. In each of these areas there are clear links to research on social comparison, and research on envy has greatly benefitted from insights from the social comparison literature. Given the surge in research on envy in the last decade, we hope that the findings on envy can also inspire those investigating social comparisons.
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Envy and social comparison
Niels van de Ven
Tilburg University
Marcel Zeelenberg
Tilburg University & Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
Chapter for Social Comparison, Judgment and Behavior. Eds: Jerry Suls, Rebecca Collins, and
Ladd Wheeler (Oxford University Press)
Niels van de Ven, Department of Marketing, Tilburg University,
n.v.d.ven@tilburguniversity.edu.
Marcel Zeelenberg, Department of Social Psychology, Tilburg University, marcel@uvt.nl; &
Department of Marketing, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
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Envy and social comparison
Dutch education faced a serious problem in 2007. The expectancy was that 10 years later
75% of the teacher population would have quit or retired from their jobs. This was a major
problem, as not many young people were interested in becoming a teacher. A dramatic shortage
of teachers was imminent. One cause for the lack of enthusiasm for becoming a teacher was the
relatively low salary of high school teachers. It already started low, but especially the growth in
the first few years lagged compared to what peers in other sectors could make. In 2008 the
government introduced a plan that let the salary of the younger teachers to grow quicker than it
had in the past (but the salary at the end of a teacher’s career would remain the same). This
proposal, however, was never accepted. The reason for this was that the older teachers (with the
back-up of the unions) wanted to be compensated, because the young generation would progress
in salary more quickly than they had when they were young. The compensation that older
teachers wanted, made the proposal so expensive that the government could not implement it
anymore (Reijn, 2008). Why did older teachers need a compensation for the faster growth in
salary that new teachers would get when they started? The plan would not hurt the older teachers
in any way it seemed. So why oppose this plan? Could it be that the older teachers were envious?
It seems that the older teachers felt frustration that the new generation of teachers would progress
more quickly than they had done. To us, this is an example of the effect that envy can have on
people and society, as in this case it seems that envy in the old teachers blocked the introduction
of a plan that would have helped to prevent a shortage in teachers and as such would have been
advantageous for society.
In the current chapter we provide an overview of the psychology of envy: What it is and
what it does. We do this with a special focus on its relationship with social comparisons. Envy is
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omnipresent in the sense that it is experienced around the world (Foster, 1972; Schoeck, 1969).
This universality of envy is also apparent by the fact that many major religions describe how one
can and should deal with envy. In the Christian and Jewish tradition, “thou shall not covet” is
one of the Ten Commandments, in Islam hassad is undesirable envy that prevents true faith, and
in Buddhism envy is seen as a poison of the mind. Envy has thus long been considered an
important and unwanted feeling across the world. In order to understand this attitude towards
envy, we first need to address the question of what exactly envy is.
What is envy?
Aristotle (350BC/1954) defined envy as the pain caused by the good fortune of others. In
his definition Aristotle did not include a crucial component of envy: Kant (1780/1997) argued
that a comparison of oneself to the superior person lies at the core of envy. Envy is thus not the
pain that arises when others do well, but rather it is the pain that arises when others do better
than oneself. Envy is upward looking, it contains a focus on both what the other person has, and
what one lacks oneself. This is also found in the most commonly used definition of envy in
psychology (Parrott & Smith, 1993, p. 906): “Envy arises when a person lacks another’s superior
quality, achievement, or possession and either desires it or wishes that the other lacked it.”
Envy is commonly equated to jealousy, but in emotion theory they are considered to be
different experiences. Jealousy arises when a person has something but is afraid of losing it to
another person (Neu, 1980). Jealousy thus has the fear of a loss as its core; in the prototypical
case one fears losing a romantic partner to someone else. Envy has in its core a social
comparison in which one lacks something desirable that the other person has. Upward social
comparison is thus the trigger of envy. Although some initially argued that these experiences
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were rather similar (Salovey & Rodin, 1986, 1989), later research did find clear differences
(Parrott & Smith, 1993; Smith, Kim, & Parrott, 1988). The mix-up of the two in colloquial
language use does occur often, though. For example, Smith et al. found that the word jealousy
was often used to indicate envy. Another example is the work of Zeelenberg and Pieters (2004),
who studied people’s emotional reactions to their neighbors winning the lottery and found that
people indicated to feel regret over not playing themselves. Moreover, they also mentioned
feeling both envy and jealousy towards the winners of the lottery. Interestingly, despite the
confusion between these emotions and the misuse of jealousy to indicate envy, Smith et al. also
found that misuse in the other direction is rare. The word envy is hardly ever used to indicate an
experience of jealousy.
The function of envy. Envy is an emotion. Emotions are evolved mechanisms that help an
organism to cope with important challenges that arise in the environment (Cosmides & Tooby,
2000) and to prioritize behavioral responses that deal with those challenges (Frijda, 1988;
Zeelenberg, Nelissen, Breugelmans & Pieters, 2006). For example, anger arises when someone
perceives that someone (or something) is deliberately blocking their goal progress. The anger
results in behavior to stand up for oneself and agitate against that which blocks one’s progress.
These behaviors are part and parcel of the emotional experience and provide insight into its
function. In the words of Averill’s (1982, p. 178) “the desire to gain revenge on, or to get back at
the instigator of anger can almost be taken as a definition of anger”. If all emotions have a
function, what then is the function of envy?
How does the concern for relative status relate to envy? Envy is found to arise when
someone feels that his or her relative status is threatened (Smith & Kim, 2007). Van de Ven,
Zeelenberg and Pieters (2009) argues that the motivational goal of envy is to level the difference
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with the target of the upward social comparison. Envy may thus help people to obtain what the
others has, and prevent one from looking pale in comparison. Envy is part of the evolved set of
innate mechanisms that help an individual monitor whether they succeed in obtaining and
keeping a good relative position (Hill & Buss, 2008). Consistent with this idea is that research
shows that people are more envious in areas that have evolutionary benefits. For example, males
tend to be more envious of wealth, while females were more envious of beauty (Salovey &
Rodin, 1991). These gender differences map onto ideas of what is important for each gender
from an evolutionary fitness perspective.
Benign and malicious envy. Although past work has long considered there to be a
possibility that there are actually two types of envy, malicious and benign (Parrott, 1991; Smith
& Kim, 2007 for an overview), empirical research is relatively recent. Starting with the
observation that some languages appear to have two words for envy, Van de Ven et al. (2009)
tested people’s experiences of envy. For example, in Dutch the words afgunst and benijden both
translate into envy. But when people recall one of these experiences and we compared the
responses to questions about how that experience felt, afgunst and benijden appear to be different
experiences (for a replication in German, see Crusius & Lange, 2014). Both types of envy are
negative, frustrating feelings that arise when someone else does better than oneself (the pain at
the good fortune of others), but they also clearly differ, mainly in the action tendencies that are
triggered. Whereas malicious envy (afgunst) triggers destructive action tendencies aimed at
pulling down the other, benign envy (benijden) triggers more constructive action tendencies
aimed at improving one’s own position.
Van de Ven et al. (2009) then tested whether the distinction in these envy subtypes also
existed in countries that have only one word for envy (the U.S. and Spain). Participants recalled
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an instance of envy (or envidia) and responded to questions how that experience had felt to them.
Results confirmed that despite everyone recalling an experience of envy, participants recalled
either an experience that closely resembled the Dutch experience of afgunst (malicious envy) or
that of benijden (benign envy; see Falcon, 2015, for a replication).
Note that there is some debate on whether envy should be seen as having subtypes or not.
Tai, Narayanan, and McAllister (2012) and Cohen-Charash and Larson (2016, 2017) argue that
there is only one envy, but that the motivation it leads to depends on situational characteristics.
Van de Ven and colleagues (2015, 2016) tried to integrate these viewpoints, by seeing a general
form of envy as the higher order, umbrella term that encompasses the two subtypes. As noted
above, Van de Ven et al. (2009) argue that envy motivates behavior that levels the difference
with the target of the upward social comparison; benign envy does so by leveling up oneself,
malicious envy by pulling down the other. In other words, it just depends on the level at which
you zoom into the experience; at a higher level of abstraction emotions are conceptualized, for
which one can zoom into the class of negative emotions, with envy being a specific emotion in
this class of negative emotions, and if one zooms in even further the subtypes of envy exist.
Cohen-Charash and Larson (2017) argue that making a distinction does not help envy
theory. First, they argue that the subtypes theory is less parsimonious than seeing envy as one
uniform experience is. We disagree: where the subtypes approach argues that an appraisal of the
situation determines which subtype of envy is experienced (that in turn affects behavior), the
general envy approach argues that the behavior that results from envy depends on the situational
circumstances. Neither one is therefore more parsimonious; they just differ in where situational
factors affect the experience. A second main point of criticism is related to measurement, and
that researchers do not consistently use the same measures for the envy subtypes. We agree that
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this could be improved upon, but see this as a larger issue in emotion research (including the
research on envy as a uniform construct). A third point is that Cohen-Charash and Larson argue
that other possible behavioral consequences are possible, and that the subtypes approach neglects
these. As we discuss later, we agree that other consequences aside from the main motivations
that are part of benign and malicious envy have not been studied, but also do not think they are
part of envy, but rather are responses to envy. In other words, people might regulate their
emotional experience of envy, by for example distracting themselves, but think these other
reaction to envy are not part of the experience itself but can better be understood via theories on
emotion regulation or emotion reappraisal.
In our view, both theories (a uniform view of envy and the subtypes view) can easily co-
exist, by seeing envy as the overarching construct that has two subtypes (benign and malicious
envy). So why do we favor making the distinction? First, making a distinction in subtypes of
envy is based on emotion theory as emotions with different antecedents that lead to different
motivations can be classified as different (types of) emotions (Frijda, 1988; Roseman, Antoniou,
& Jose, 1994).
A second reason for making the distinction is that by not making the distinction, some
scholars operationalize envy as general envy, some as benign envy, and some as malicious envy.
If all three of these experiences would be labeled as envy, the confusion arises that caused the
problems in the research in the envy-schadenfreude link. An example of why this distinction is
important can be found in the literature on schadenfreude (the joy over the misfortune of others).
Research seemed to contradict each other on whether envy related to schadenfreude: some
research concluded that envy caused schadenfreude (e.g., Smith, Turner, Garonzik, Leach, Urch-
Druskat, & Weston, 1996), while other work concluded that it did not (e.g., Feather & Sherman,
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2002). Van Dijk, Ouwerkerk, Goslinga, Nieweg, and Gallucci (2006) noted that this was because
researchers were not clear in how they operationalized envy: those who found an effect of envy
on schadenfreude used hostility related questions in their envy measure, while research that did
not find an effect used more self-improvement envy items. Van de Ven et al. (2015) predicted
and found that it would thus be malicious envy that would be related to schadenfreude, but not
benign envy.
A third reason for making the distinction is that is also unclear why the English language
solution of using one word for envy should be the starting point, rather than the Dutch or German
language that differentiates the two types. The subtypes view of envy allows all these theories to
co-exist: (general) envy as the pain arising after comparing oneself to the good fortune of
another, and if one zooms in on the experience, the subtypes benign and malicious envy can be
distinguished.
A final reason is that making the distinction fits the empirical data best. As Van de Ven et
al. (2009) initially found, even in languages where one word exists when people recall an
experience of envy, we see these distinct patterns that suggest they experienced one of the
subtypes. Even in the work that forms the base for a uniform view of envy for Cohen-Charash
(2009), the measure of “uniform” envy contains two unrelated components, one containing items
like desire for what another person has (essentially tapping benign envy), and the other one
containing items on feeling a grudge towards the envied person (essentially tapping malicious
envy). For a broader discussion on why it is useful to distinguish the subtypes of envy, we refer
the reader to Van de Ven (2016). We now first provide an overview of the antecedents that
trigger envy, before we turn to the consequences of envy.
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Antecedents of envy
In the following section we focus on the key antecedents that lead to envy. When are
people likely to be envious? Who are likely to be envious?
Upward comparison. At the core of envy lies the upward social comparison (Salovey &
Rodin, 1984; Smith, 2000). A core idea in the emotion literature is that how intense an emotion
is depends on the perceived relevance and importance of the situation (Frijda, 1988). This is also
consistent with findings on social comparisons; that people compare themselves more in
important domains and that comparisons for more important domains trigger stronger reactions
(Festinger, 1954). Research on emotions has shown that it is important to not only look at
valence and intensity of the emotional experience, but that to be able to predict behavior one
needs to look at specific effects of emotions (Van der Pligt, Zeelenberg, Van Dijk, De Vries, &
Richard, 1998). Whether a social comparison triggers positive or negative feelings has been
investigated in social comparison research quite often (Brickman & Bulman, 1977; Buunk et al.,
1990), but more specific emotions resulting from social comparisons did not receive much
attention in empirical research.
Smith (2000) is a notable exception. He created a theoretical model that positioned
emotions along three dimensions. Envy is classified as an upward contrastive emotion with low
perceived control: when a person compares oneself to a superior other and feels that obtaining
the benefit is difficult, the person feels inferior. This frustration due to inferiority caused by the
comparison is key: if one only focuses on the good accomplishment of the other (without that
comparison reflecting poorly on oneself) admiration is more likely. Admiration can arise when
another has an excellent performance, but typically does not contain an upward social
comparison in which one realizes that (or is hurt because) one is inferior to the other (Van de
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Ven et al., 2009). For example, where Van de Ven et al. found that virtually all of the recalled
episodes of envy contained an explicit comparison (my classmate got an 8 for the exam, while I
only had a 6), recalled episodes of admiration were typically only about the accomplishment of
someone else without a mention of one’s own position (my roommate made it to the varsity
team). Of course, when one sees an admirable performance such as an athlete winning an
Olympic competition, there is implicitly the comparison that the athlete can do things that I
cannot. However, as Gilbert, Giesler, and Morris (1995) find, in such cases the initial and
spontaneous comparison is often quickly unmade. The other is so much better in a domain that is
perhaps also not really important to me, so a comparison is not elicited. This leads to the pattern
confirmed in Van de Ven et al. (2009): when recalling instances of envy, people make a direct
comparison (the other did better than I did), while for admiration the focus is solely on the
accomplishment of the other (the other did great).
We see (upward) social comparisons as the cognitive process that precedes the affective
state of envy. Social comparison is here the antecedent process and can trigger many emotions
such envy, dissatisfaction, and regret (Boles & Messick, 1990), resentment and frustration
(Feather, 2008), and positive emotions such as pride (Van Osch, Zeelenberg, & Breugelmans, in
press) and admiration (Van de Ven, 2017). Smith’s (2000) theoretical model helps to predict
specific emotions from social comparison. Envy arises from upward social comparisons, where
there is little control for self-improvement, and where there is a dual focus on both the other and
the self. Based on the subtypes approach, we agree that this fits for malicious envy, but not for
benign envy (as we explain later).
The relation between social comparison and envy resembles that between upward
counterfactual thinking and regret. A counterfactual is a comparison of the current state with
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what it could have been (Roese, 1997). People feel regret when they generate counterfactual
thoughts in which decisions turned out better (Zeelenberg et al., 1998). Counterfactual thinking
is thus the cognitive antecedent of the affective reaction regret. This cognitive/affective
distinction also resembles a difference in social comparisons and envy. The dispositional
tendency to make social comparisons to others, as measured by the INCOM (the Iowa-
Netherlands Social Comparison Orientation, Gibbons & Buunk, 1999, #CHAPTER IN THIS
BOOK), is the more cognitive component with items like “I often compare myself with others
with respect to what I have accomplished in life”. Dispositional envy, as measured by the DES
(the Dispositional Envy Scale, Smith, Parrott, Diener, Hoyle, & Kim, 1999), is more affective
with items like “I feel envy every day”.
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In emotion terms, the upward social comparison is seen
as the cognitive appraisal of a situation, which is the antecedent of the affective experience envy
(Smith, 2000). Zeelenberg and Pieters (2007) found that dispositional envy was indeed predicted
by the INCOM, and also by dispositional shame and self-esteem.
The effects of upward social comparisons extend to anticipations of envy. Research by
Hoelzl and Loewenstein (2005) shows that nicely. They had participants play a 100-ball bingo
game in which participants paid $0.10 in each round to draw a ball. Drawn balls were not
replaced, and when a winning ball was drawn the participant would win $7. Participants were
more persistent, played more rounds, when they knew that the next participant would continue
with their bingo cage, instead of starting with a new cage with 100 balls. They did so because it
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As a further illustration of seeing social comparisons as the more cognitive construct and envy as the more
affective, the research of Seuntjens, Zeelenberg, Van de Ven, & Breugelmans (2015) had related these constructs to
materialism and greed. Materialism is more cognitive (reflecting the importance one attaches to possessions, Belk,
1985), greed is more affective (the insatiable desire to always want more, Seuntjens et al.). Seuntjens et al. found
that the INCOM relates most strongly to materialism, while the DES relates most to greed. Note that the DES as the
dispositional tendency to be envious mainly contains items about the hostile, malicious type of envy. Furthermore,
the INCOM is broader than the DES, as the DES is always about upward social comparisons while the INCOM can
also be about making downward social comparisons.
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would be so painful if the next participant would win with “their” bingo cage. It seems that envy
was anticipated, and participants played longer to avoid this from happening.
Domain importance. The social comparison literature is also clear in that comparisons in
more important domains have stronger effects (Festinger, 1954). This mimics again what we
know about emotions: emotions are felt when our concerns are threatened or satisfied, and the
more important the concern is the more intense the emotion will be (Frijda, 1988). There is some
research that finds an effect of domain importance on the intensity of envy (Bers & Rodin, 1984;
Salovey & Rodin, 1984, 1991; Tesser & Smith, 1980). For example, Bers and Rodin found that
younger children tend to become envious every time another child is better off, while older
children only become envious if the other child is better off in a domain that is important. The
reason is that these younger children can not yet distinguish between important and non-
important situations: everything is important to them. As we explained before, Salovey and
Rodin (1991) found that males and females are more envious in domains that are important from
an evolutionary perspective (wealth and status for males; attractiveness for females).
Target similarity. People are mainly envious of others who are initially similar to them
(Salovey & Rodin, 1984). This again closely follows research from the social comparison
literature, that finds that people compare themselves more to those thought to be more similar
(Festinger, 1954; Tesser, 1991; Tesser & Smith, 1980). This idea has a long history. Aristotle
(350BC/1954) already argued that we are especially envious of those close in time, place, age, or
reputation. Bacon (1597) eloquently stated “Envy is ever joined with the comparing of a man’s
self: and where there is no comparison, no envy; and therefore kings are not envied but by
kings.” This idea also has empirical support. For example, Schaubroeck and Lam (2004) found
that people who were rejected for a promotion themselves, were more envious of the person who
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did get the promotion when that other person was considered to be more similar to themselves.
All these concepts can likely be traced back to the relevance of the comparison other (see
Festinger, 1954): is their performance of relevance to how we should evaluate our own
performance?
Another factor that is related to this this effect of similar (and relevant) others on envy is
the counterfactual nature of envy (Ben-Ze'ev, 1992; Elster, 1991). For envy, the counterfactual
comparison is social. In other words, the more a person feels “it could have been me” when
someone else is better off, the more envious they become (Van de Ven & Zeelenberg, 2015). If
your old neighbourhood friend is now much more successful than you are, it is easier to think “it
could have been me” and become envious. After all, you had the same upbringing, primary
school, etc., which makes the better position (s)he is in a much more painful social comparison.
This is also consistent with the concept of “related attributes” (Goethals & Darley, 1977), the
idea that we prefer to compare to those similar to us (with whom we have shared attributes)
because there position is more informative for us. In the case of envy, seeing someone with
related attributes outperform oneself leads to more intense envy, possibly via these easier to
generate counterfactuals.
Antecedents of benign and malicious envy. The antecedents discussed so far are
important for both benign and malicious envy (Van de Ven et al., 2009). But what determines
whether the envy will be of the benign or the malicious type? In emotion theory, the antecedents
that give rise to an emotion are called appraisals (Roseman et al., 1994). Appraisals are the
cognitive evaluations of a situation, and specific combinations of appraisals can give rise to
specific emotions. For example, both regret and disappointment arise after one perceives a
situation to be bad for oneself, but regret arises when you blame yourself for the bad outcome,
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while disappointment arises when you blame external factors (Van Dijk & Zeelenberg, 2002). So
what appraisals differentiate benign envy from malicious envy? Several factors have been
identified.
First, two appraisals (that are also seen as core appraisals, Roseman et al., 1994; Feather,
McKee, & Bekker, 2011) that differ are deservedness and perceived control (Van de Ven,
Zeelenberg, & Pieters, 2012). When the superior position of the target of the upward social
comparison is perceived as undeserved, malicious envy becomes more likely (relative to benign
envy). This also fits with prior work that found that injustice or perceptions of unfairness where
important antecedents of envy, as measured in its malicious form (Smith, Parrot, Ozer, & Moniz,
1994).
When situations are more deserved, the second appraisal that was found to distinguish
malicious and benign envy is the perception that one has control over obtaining the object of the
social comparison: more perceived control elicits more benign envy. Note that this differs from
the model of Smith (2000) on when specific emotions result from social comparison. He
indicated that envy is an emotion resulting from upward social comparisons where there is little
control over achieving the outcome oneself. This appears true for malicious envy, but not for
benign envy.
Research also found that people experience more benign (relative to malicious) envy
when they have a strong tie to the target of the upward comparison (Lin & Utz, 2015; Park &
Yang, 2015). For example, Lin and Utz found that when people indicate that the bond with the
person they envied was a close relationship, they were more likely to feel benign envy (instead
of malicious envy) for something the other posted on Facebook. Another antecedent that differs
between benign and malicious envy is the type of pride displayed by upward comparison target
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(Lange & Crusius, 2015b). When upward comparison targets display hubristic pride (being
arrogant, smug), malicious envy was more likely to occur, while when targets displayed
authentic pride (being accomplished, confident) benign envy became more likely. In both cases,
the effects might occur via deservedness: for an upward comparison target that we like we might
think it is more deserved if they get something nice. Similarly, for those whose accomplishments
are seen as authentic, their advantage is more likely to be perceived as being deserved. This way,
these other antecedents might actually have an effect via perceived deservedness.
Another potential antecedent is the focus of attention. In general, the focus in envy lies on
what the other has, that one misses oneself. As Smith (2000) had already indicated, envy has a
dual focus on both the other person and oneself (see also Van de Ven et al., 2009). However,
recent empirical work suggests that the exact role of what people focus on is a bit more nuanced.
Crucius and Lange (2014) found that the benignly envious people focus their attention relatively
more on the object of envy, while maliciously envious people focus their attention more on the
target person. Note that these authors suggest that this difference in focus causes the difference
in benign and malicious envy, but it might actually also be a consequence of it. Further research
could clarify this. This research also raises the possibility that this difference in focus might also
be important for studying assimilation and contrast effects resulting from social comparison:
perhaps a stronger focus on the object makes assimilative responses more likely, while a stronger
focus on the person makes contrastive responses more likely.
Who are likely to be envious? Research on the Dispositional Envy Scale (Smith et al.,
1999) found that those who are more neurotic and those with a lower self-esteem are more likely
to experience envy. Perhaps these people tend to ruminate more over the upward social
comparison, making the experience more affectively negative and thereby increasing envy.
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Furthermore, those who are more likely to make social comparisons in general (as measured via
the INCOM, Gibbons & Buunk, 1999; Buunk, #THIS BOOK) are more likely to be envious (see
Smith et al., 1999), so personality traits that are related to the INCOM are also likely to be
related to the dispositional tendency to be envious.
Regarding the envy types, research found that narcissism’s relationship with envy
depends on the type of narcissism and the type of envy. Narcissistic admiration (the desire to be
admired) led to a hope for success, and when others do better they tend to experience benign
envy (Lange, Crusius, & Birkmayer, 2016). Narcissistic rivalry (the desire to outdo others), in
contrast, leads to a fear of failure, which in turn makes malicious envy more likely. Also in
another typology of narcissism, it appear to be vulnerable narcissists (again those who fear
failure) that are more maliciously envious (Krizan & Johar, 2012).
To summarize, envy arises after an upward comparison. As is the case in social
comparison, the comparison is more likely and/or has stronger effects when it is in a relevant
domain, with others who are thought to be similar to us, and when the comparison or
counterfactual thought is easier to make. Perceived deservedness, perceived control, liking the
other, and the focus of attention during the comparison all seem important in determining
whether the envy will be of the malicious or the benign type.
Consequences of envy
As with any emotion, envy has clear action tendencies that help the organism deal with
the situation that gave rise to the emotion. In general, positive emotions signal that things are
going well and that one can enjoy the current situation and explore one’s surrounding; negative
emotions indicate that there is a problem and action is needed to deal with it (Frijda, 1988). For
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envy the problem is, as we discussed before, the threat to relative status. The action tendencies
are then to remove this threat by pulling the superior person down from their position (malicious
envy) or by moving up oneself (benign envy). We will discuss these two main consequences of
envy in the next subsections. We follow this with other possible consequences of envy, based on
emotion theory.
Consequences of malicious envy. Initial work on envy has mainly focused on the negative
consequences it would lead to. Envy was found to contain hostile feelings towards the envied
(Smith et al., 1994). The envy can be so intense that people also hurt others at one’s own
expense: the envious were found to be willing to give up some of their own money, if that
allowed them to destroy even more money from the person they envied (Zizzo & Oswald, 2001).
Participants did not want to cooperate with those who were already better off, even if that also
meant a worse outcome for themselves (Parks, Rumble, & Posey, 2002). Malicious envy also
hurts social relationships. Employees of a bank were found to dislike colleagues who received a
promotion, and the dislike was being fueled by envy (Schaubroeck & Lam, 2004). Envy made
people gossip more about the envied (Wert & Salovey, 2004). Also in society (malicious) envy is
thought to have these destructive effects. Aly (2014) argues that envy of the success of the Jews
fueled their persecution in Nazi Germany. Schoeck (1969) sees malicious envy as an important
force that prevents the development of poor countries. The idea is that when people fear the envy
of others (see also the penultimate section of this chapter), they try not to stand out in a positive
way. This in turn hinders progress in society.
The negative motivation of malicious envy can also take a different form, in which people
try to differentiate themselves from the people they envy. This closely resembles the idea of
social differentiation in the social comparison literature (Lemaine, 1974). As the maliciously
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envious dislike experiencing their envy, they might attempt to change the domain of comparison
to one in which the frustrating upward social comparison no longer exists. A clear example of
social differentiation was found in the consumer domain (Van de Ven, Zeelenberg, & Pieters,
2011a), where consumers who were maliciously envious of another consumer who owned an
iPhone (that is relatively more playful and frivolous), increased their preference for a BlackBerry
(that is relatively more professional) in an attempt to change the domain of the upward
comparison. This can also take more drastic forms, as for example Vecchio (2005) found that
those (maliciously) envious at work were more likely to want to leave the organization they
worked for (possibly in an attempt to avoid the upward social comparison to the envied
coworker). Consistent with this is also the work of Duffy and Shaw (2000) who found that in
groups in which members were (maliciously) envious of a group member performed worse,
possibly because they started to focus their attention on other things.
Consequences of benign envy. Besides these well-documented negative and destructive
consequences of envy, recent research also found more positive effects of envy (Cohen-Charash,
2009; Schaubroeck & Lam, 2004). These findings are found amongst others in organizational
psychology. Employees who were envious of their colleagues also became more motivated to do
better themselves. Aside from these effects on general motivational tendencies that were
hypothesized (and found) to be part of the benign type of envy (Van de Ven, 2009), research also
found more specific effects on motivation. For example, students who were benignly envious of
a fellow student who outperformed them planned to spend more time studying the next semester
(Van de Ven, Zeelenberg, & Pieters, 2011b), and those who were benignly envious of someone
who owned an attractive phone indicated a higher willingness to pay (Van de Ven et al., 2011a).
19
Aside from these motivations and intentions, research documented instances of actual self-
improvement resulting from benign envy as well. The benignly envious worked longer on a task
and actually performed better on a task that required creativity and intelligence (Van de Ven et
al., 2011b). Marathon runners with a dispositional tendency to be benignly envious, set more
difficult goals for themselves and ran a faster race (Lange & Crusius, 2015a). There is thus clear
support for the idea that benign envy not only creates the action tendency to improve oneself, but
also triggers actual behavior to do so.
The idea that benign envy motivates also fits with past work in the social comparison
literature that suggested that some frustration is needed for an upward comparison to really
motivate self-improvement (Johnson, 2012). Initially, Van de Ven et al. (2011b) indeed found
that only benign envy (that includes such a frustration) motivated self-improvement, while the
pleasant feeling of admiration did not. However, more recent work found that admiration does
also inspire and can lead to self-improvement (Schindler, Paech, & Löwenbrück, 2015; Van de
Ven, 2017). The key difference seems that benign envy motivates people to improve oneself at
that moment, while admiration inspires more long term growth and makes one rethink what is
important (Blatz, Lange, & Crusius, 2016). This fits the core ideas of emotion theory, that
negative emotions help an individual to deal with concrete problems that need to be dealt with
now, while positive emotions signal that things go well and one can explore future opportunities
(Fredrickson, 2001).
Other possible consequences. Obviously, like with any emotion, one does not always need
to act on the action tendencies associated with an emotion. When feeling angry, one might want
smack someone or something, but social norms and willpower can often prevent one from doing
so. The same holds for envy, the action tendencies are not always acted upon. Furthermore,
20
Cohen-Charash and Larson (2017) argue that the subtypes view of envy focuses only on the
motivation to do better and the motivation to damage the position of the superior other and that
envy can lead to other behavior as well. In the subtypes view of envy, we agree that these
motivations are indeed part of the envious experience, as action tendencies form an integral part
of an emotion and are therefore also the most important behavioral consequences of envy. We do
agree that there are likely other ways to cope with envy, just like there are other ways one can
cope with anger than by giving in to its primary motivation to take offensive action towards the
object of anger. Just because people can cope with anger in various ways, does not detract from
the fact that aggression and taking offensive action against that which causes the anger is a key
part of the anger experience. Let us explain how emotion regulation and reappraisal might affect
the envious experience and behavior resulting after feeling envy.
For example, work on emotion reappraisal (Gross, 1998) indicated that by reappraising a
situation, the felt emotion (and accompanying action tendencies) can be changed. When a
colleague gets an undeserved promotion, this can initially trigger malicious envy. But by
rethinking whether it is really undeserved (she does work hard, she did really well on that last
project, etc.), the perception can change to seeing the promotion as being deserved, which
transforms the experience from malicious envy into benign envy. Feelings of envy can also be
reduced by attempts to see the domain of comparison as less important (“I do not want to make a
promotion anyway”) or reduce the perceived similarity to the comparison target (“I am more a
specialist, she is more a generalist and that is probably what they need”). Basically, changing
anything in the perception that is a likely antecedent of envy is likely to change the experience of
envy (including subsequent action tendencies). Gross’ model of emotion regulation provides
many more possible way how people cope with emotion, ranging from refocusing their attention
21
(distracting) to using humor. But in the core, envy will have action tendencies aimed at restoring
the status balance as its default response (as the key action tendencies that are part of this
emotion all help to do this, Van de Ven et al., 2009). Note that in this way, even malicious envy
can be beneficial to the individual; if you really feel that it is undeserved that the other got a
promotion, malicious envy might help you to pull down the person from their unfairly held
position thereby restoring your relative status again.
Longer term effects of envy. Envy, as any emotion, is a rather fleeting experience. A
specific set of appraisals of a situation trigger the emotion, but after a short while it fades again.
With a repeated exposure to an upward social comparison target, the experience of envy is likely
to evolve over time (Hoogland, Thielke, & Smith, 2016; Smith, 2004). A reason why prolonged
experience of envy makes it likely that the experience evolves into a different experience, is that
if envy cannot be resolved it loses its functional benefits. For example, a motivation to improve
oneself resulting from benign envy that does not gets fulfilled is useless to keep experiencing.
When confronted with a superior target for a longer time (the colleague who was promoted
instead of you), various changes can take place depending on the change in appraisal of the
situation. For example, when one stops comparing one’s own position the envy might turn into
admiration when the other does well, or resentment when he does badly.
An interesting question is how envy changes when one becomes older. Henniger and Harris
(2015) found that younger people tend to be more envious than older people. It is unclear still
whether this effect exists because people become gradually less envious when they become
older, or whether this is a generational effect (that people from this generation tend to be more
envious). What is clear is that when people become older, they become envious for different
things. This again reflects the effect of the importance of the domain of comparison, as for
22
example scholastic success, looks, and romantic success becomes less important with increasing
age.
Other long-term effects of envy might be inferred from its relationship to other personality
traits or general life outcomes. As we discussed earlier, the Dispositional Envy scale measures
individual differences in the tendency to experience envy (from the subtypes view of envy, it
actually seems to measure the malicious type of envy more, see also Lange and Crusius, 2015).
As part of their scale validation, Smith et al. (1999) found that the more envious people tend to
be, the more likely they are to be depressed and the lower their well-being is. More research into
such long-term consequences, with special emphasis on establishing causality would be
welcome. From a subtypes view of envy, using the scales to measure dispositional benign and
malicious envy developed by Lange and Crusius (2015a) would then allow additionally valuable
insights (for scales assessing dispositional benign and malicious envy in work settings, see
Sterling, Van de Ven, & Smith, 2016).
The fear of being envied: Being the target of an upward comparison
If we reverse the lens, envy research can also shed light on how people respond to being
the target of an upward comparison. The anthropologist Foster (1972) documented examples
from various cultures on how people respond to being envied. He argued that to ward off the
possible negative consequences of envy, the better off would first try to hide their advantage (in
other words: prevent the social comparison). If that would not work or would not be possible, the
better off would downplay their advantage (in other words, reduce the magnitude of the upward
comparison). If that again would not work, they would appease the envious by providing them
with a sop (making the others slightly better off to reduce the magnitude of the upward
23
comparison). Finally, if all these strategies did not work they would engage in true sharing of
their advantage, creating equality to prevent others from making an upward comparison. His
ideas were supported with anecdotes from various cultures, but these steps (and whether they
indeed are attempted in this order) have to the best of our knowledge not been tested empirically.
The core of this idea, that people do not like to be envied and thus do not like to be the
target of an upward comparison, is also the base of the STTUC-model by Exline and Lobel
(1999, see also Zell, Exline, & Lobel, #THIS BOOK). Based on the social comparison literature
(e.g., Brickman & Bulman, 1977), Exline and Lobel created an elegant framework that helps to
predict when people feel bad when doing better than others. To summarize the STTUC model,
people feel bad about outperforming others when the better off think that 1) another person
makes an upward comparison, 2) the person who is better off feels threatened by this comparison
because of possible negative responses it could trigger in others, and 3) the person who is better
off cares about the relationship with the one making the upward comparison, or worries that it
has a negative effect on his or her own situation. Given that envy results from an upward
comparison (point 1 of the STTUC model), is characterized by feelings of inferiority and
frustration (2), and can lead to very destructive effects (3) it is clear that when people think they
are being envied this likely matches the triggers of the STTUC-model as well.
Based on the Foster’s idea that people fear being envied and the STUCC model, Van de
Ven, Zeelenberg, and Pieters (2010) predicted that people would not like being maliciously
envied, but would not mind as much if they were benignly envied. The reason is that although
benign envy is still a frustrating experience for the person who feels it, it does not lead to
destructive behavior towards the envied nor is it likely to hurt the relationship with the envied
person. This is indeed what Van de Ven et al. found: when participants had undeservedly won 5
24
euro, they expected to be maliciously envied by another participant who did not win anything.
As a result, they were more likely to help that other participant. For example, in one study the
other participant was actually a confederate who knocked over a box with pens, and participants
who thought the confederate was likely maliciously envious were more likely to help pick up
these pens. When participants held a deserved advantage, they expected the confederate to be
benignly envious and were less likely to help them pick up the pens. Consistent with this is work
by Rodriguez-Mosquera, Parrott, and Hurtado de Mendoza (2010), who found that people favor
situations in which others covet what they have (which resembles more benign envy), but fear
being (maliciously) envied. Other related findings more directly test the role of deservingness in
the STTUC-model (Koch & Totten, 2015), and the role of being envied in the consumer domain
(Romani, Grappi, & Bagozzi, 2016).
Conclusion
Envy is an emotion that can arise from upward social comparisons. At its broadest level,
envy is the pain at the good fortune of others, as Aristotle (350BC) already defined it. Emotions
bring about goals, and for envy the goal is to reduce the gap between oneself and the superior
other person. Envy has two subtypes: benign and malicious envy. For benign envy, reducing the
gap with the other will be done by improving one’s own position. For malicious envy, reducing
this gap will done by pulling the superior other down. The social comparison literature has
provided valuable insights that helped to make predictions on the antecedents of envy. Similarly,
we are confident that the envy literature can also provide inspiration for research on social
comparisons.
25
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... social envy and schadenfreude belong to a social comparison of self-esteem linked with material possessions(van de Ven, 2016;van de Ven & Zeelenberg, 2018;van Dijk et al., 2015). ...
... There has been some recent debate on whether envy should be conceptualized as a unitary form or as subtypes (Cohen-Charash and Larson 2017; Van de Ven and Zeelenberg 2018). This study adopts the latter view. ...
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