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Social comparison Part 2
Developmental psychology, Benign vs Malicious Envy
The first post on the subject discussed Social Comparison Orientation, introduced the concept of envy, and for the most part explored envy from an evolutionary, societal and cultural perspective. Lets continue where we left off…
Developmental psychology is the scientific study of how and why humans grow, change, and adapt across the course of their lives. It examines how thinking, feeling, and behaviour change throughout a person’s life.
Unsurprisingly, there is evidence of status-levelling from studies on children. You will recall from the previous post, the question about pay-rises in an absolute sense versus a relative sense. Would you rather have more pay, or more pay than your colleague? You guessed it: most young children prefer to have more than others.
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This study tested children between 7 and 13 years of age with a novel monetary reward-and-punishment task measuring envy and Schadenfreude. Results suggest that when children won, they felt better if the competitor lost instead of winning (i.e., Schadenfreude). Conversely, when children lost, they felt worse if the competitor won instead of losing (i.e., envy). Crucially, levels of envy and Schadenfreude decreased with age.
This suggests at an early age, there seems to be some intrinsic desire to obtain a relative advantage.
Here’s another study which really surprised me. They found 5-6-year-olds will spitefully incur a ‘cost’ to ensure that another’s welfare falls below their own. i.e. they level up, by leveling others down. Savages.
To put this into perspective: if you paired young kids into groups of two, and asked one of the children if they’d rather get 10 treats for themselves and 10 for the other kid, or 8 for themselves and 0 for the other, they’ll be more likely to choose the second option!
This suggests at an early age, there seems to be some intrinsic desire to obtain a relative advantage. As we get older we become, to varying degrees, conditioned to stigmatise envy and take an objective (not subjective) approach to rewards.
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is an old game show, where contestants would answer a series of questions to win a million bucks. Part of the show included a ‘lifeline’ where the contestant could “ask the audience” for help when they weren’t sure about an answer.
As it turns out, contestants on the Russian version of the show became wary of asking the audience because they would almost always give the wrong answer! This was not the result of intentional sabotage, and it was not due to excessive consumption of vodka. So why was this happening?
In America, when contestants ask the audience for help with a question, the audience tend to give the correct answer and help the contestant. Historically speaking, in communist Russia, everyone in a particular community was expected to pull their weight, and suffer equally as required. Receiving small favours like borrowing fuel, money, or supplies was common, probably expected. As a result, this collective sense of entitlement ensured that anyone who stood out or attempted to make it on their own was cast out (remember the tall poppy syndrome, from Part 1?), and the aforementioned favours which were previously ‘normal’ became nonexistent.
Consider for a moment, growing up with a friend, spending decades suffering through the same struggles, wading through the trenches of life, sharing the same experiences, building a friendship through the bond forged by hardship… and then one day, out of the blue, that person gets a fortune and you’re told to go f*ck yourself. I struggle to think this way, as I imagine the likely outcome with me or my friends would be to share the good fortune, not shun the community. Anyway, in Russia, I guess they think this is unfair; Why should Vladimir get a million rubles instead of Alexey? When will it be Alexey’s turn?
This is one of many cultural differences between American and Russian cultures. Envy is a natural feeling which will be amplified or muted by cultural factors. Japan has no natural resources but is a rich country, in part because they have managed to repress envy. Contrast this with places such as Russia, Venezuela and much of Africa, which significantly more natural resource, but are plagued with cynicism and/or corruption. Here’s another example of cultural difference when it comes to envy (1 min video):
You will often hear arguments about how societies should be, which point toward “evolution”, “natural tendencies” or “reality”… but this logic seems backwards. In fact, humans have developed social norms, laws, and punishments specifically to combat aspects of our natural instincts which we find inappropriate or undesirable. As a cave man, if I was bigger and stronger than another fellow, I could just beat the sh*t ou of him, maybe kill him, and take his food and belongings.
Clearly, any of our behaviours and desires can be considered natural by virtue of them being true for all humans and understood by nearly everyone - however, there are some aspects of our nature which are worth promoting and cultivating, and other aspects which are worth suppressing and ostracising.
The naturalistic fallacy (linked to the “is - ought problem”) is as explained in the above example; Just because a tendency is natural, does not automatically imply it ought to be accepted or allowed. Physical violence may be natural, but it is also a criminal offence and we ought not to promote it outside controlled conditions.
The other fallacy to be mindful of is the moralistic fallacy - one of the common fallacies in Western philosophy. This is the reverse of the is-ought problem. Here, people hold a belief that just because they would like things to be a certain way, this is how they truly are. We like honest people, but this preference doesn’t mean humans are naturally honest. We perhaps universally ‘dislike’ envy and think envious people are ‘bad’ - but this does not mean people do not feel envy.
Envy is natural.
“Envy is the great leveler: if it cannot level things up, it will level them down.”
Dorothy Sayers (1949)1
Given the discussion up to now, and others before this one, envy would appear to have just one meaning... but that would be too simple!
Envy has two types2.
People around us may appear to be doing better than we are; your brother may be a more skillful footballer, your neighbour has a better model of the same watch as you, or your colleague receives a prestigious prize which you were after as well. The common thread is these are all upward comparisons - which often lead to the emotional experience of envy. Such envy can in turn be reduced by narrowing the gap between oneself and the other.
This gap can be made smaller by 1) moving oneself up to the level of the other (benign), or 2) pulling the other down to one’s own position (malicious). This paper distinguishes between these two types of envy and concludes:
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 conceptualisation of envy as “the great leveler” … to be more precise, envy are the great levelers: whereas benign envy levels things up, malicious envy levels them down.
The first type of envy is benign envy. This refers to the longing for self-improvement in order to emulate the target of your envy. You might see your university roommate wearing a Rolex, and wish you could have one just like they do, so you become more determined to improve yourself as a result, and buy yourself a Rolex. With benign envy, the goal is clearly: to level up.
The second type of envy is malicious envy. This is type of envy more people will relate to, and associate with the ‘negative’ reputation of envy as a concept, such as with the seven deadly sins and so on. It refers to hostile thoughts and intentions aimed at harming the envied person. Here, the envy might create a desire to take for oneself what the envied person has, or to destroy what they have so nobody can enjoy it any longer. In the Rolex example with your roommate, instead of deciding to level yourself up, you would decide to force them into leveling down. Perhaps you scheme to get them mugged on the way to class, or to simply steal their watch, or potentially damage it.
Remember, malicious envy isn’t only about physical objects. Sure, humans can envy other people’s goods and possessions, but they can also feel envy about other people’s happiness, healthy relationships, and potential for future success. Some people try to undermine all these positive things in other people’s lives and often choose to actively try and bring them down (here we see levelling come up again). For example, one may feel envious of others’ happiness and intentionally withhold praise or warmth from them in order to bring them down a little.
As watch collectors, there is a specific Instagram nuance I have discussed with three different collectors in the past few weeks, and it is related to the moment someone posts a watch they don’t usually post, or which is rare, expensive or otherwise considered ‘out of character’. Quite often, you will see several comments which say “Yours?” or “New watch?” - why is that? Something which humans do, is categorise everyone and everything subconsciously. So you might live in a normal, middle-class area with everyone on a particular street familiar with everyone else. You’ll see people driving average cars like Mercedes E-classes or BMW 5-series, the odd S-class or Range Rover, and perhaps there’s that one richer guy who has a 911 Carrera S which he uses on weekends. For the most part, everyone knows what everyone else does, and they classify one another as well-off middle-classers.
So if you suddenly busted out a Lamborghini Aventador on weekends, and were being chauffeured to work in a Rolls Royce every morning at 9am, people would likely be baffled; “I thought I knew this guy, so how the actual f*ck is he now apparently swimming in drug-dealer money?” The problem with Instagram, is that it is even more anonymous than your neighbour down the road… and because people have very little data to work with, they must constantly seek updates to correct their mental categorisation.
The other thing they don’t know on Instagram, is whether you are actually worth envying at all. For example, nobody envies Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos - they are billionaires… you won’t get to that level, so you don’t feel envy - you just admire them, slag them off when they do silly things, but mostly just carry on with your life. If however, you find out about the good fortune of people who are similar to you, or are in “your league”, then the envy comes thick and fast. Why? Because they are comparable - “that could have been you” - but it isn’t. Again, that’s why Instagram is an interesting place - because you have no idea whether you’re talking to some billionaire’s son who collects cool watches and is very much out of your league… or whether you’re talking to a self made man who is your age, and frankly … could have been you!
Anyway… that seemed like a digression, but it isn’t; Because according to this paper, Sociometric status (respect and admiration from peers) appears to be a stronger predictor of happiness than socioeconomic status, at least within developed countries. Other studies suggest that people experience more envy toward people who are held in great social esteem versus people who have lots of money.
So people will hide their bank accounts and net worth, and conceal how much money they earn, all while being totally comfortable with having social media following and other such personal ‘accolades’ being public knowledge! How fascinating we are; in that the thing people do not envy (money) is the thing we spend time hiding, and the thing we envy more (status, esteem, admiration) is associated with metrics (followers, likes, public recognition) and these are available publicly for anyone to see.
Still, malicious envy is still very much directed toward material wealth. A 2021 study found that malicious envy was by far the strongest predictor of coercive economic redistribution. It was a stronger predictor than self-interest, fairness, or communal harm (the belief that it is fine to inflict costs on a smaller number of individuals to benefit a larger number… along the same lines as the trolley problem from part 1.
This might not surprise you, but what we often find is the most staunch proponents of economic redistribution are actually well-off people. These are folks in the top 10-20% of income distribution, but they just happen to dislike the top 1%3! Just today, a friend observed in conversation, how poorer people tend to be rather happier, on average. I agree with this, and in fact my response was: “Ignorance is bliss indeed”. Makes a lot of sense… to me at least!
Here’s the Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith on envy avoidance:
“The man who has had large and sudden success will realise envy makes it difficult for others to share in his joy. The successful man will mute his trumpeting of his good fortune. He will affect humility, probably unsuccessfully. But he will at least try.”
Smith described how successful men behave, or perhaps should behave, and generally, this seems like good advice. The point Smith is making, is when others’ joys are too large, we feel envy, and when others’ sorrows are too small, we don’t take them seriously.
So the natural outcome of this, is we are most likely to sympathise with others’ small joys and great sorrows. You will observe this if you pay attention; It is easier to be happy for someone’s small wins (as opposed to a big win). It is also easier to feel sympathy for someone who experiences a huge misfortune. Back to the Instagram analogy… the “Yours?” comments are reserved for really rare and/or expensive pieces… but if you buy a new microbrand for 1000 bucks, people are happy to say “Congrats!” and move on. If someone bangs their expensive watch, its a first world problem, but if their dog dies there is heartfelt sympathy. I’m generalising, but you get the idea hopefully.
Anyway, this is probably why decent people tend to downplay their successes and embellish their misfortunes. They shrink any victories and amplify defeats in order to secure social acceptance and preserve a sense of belonging.
Let’s end here. I had intended to talk about the consequences of envy, and the targets of envy, but this was becoming too long a read and I figured it would give you something to look forward to, yet again!
Just like the last time: Please comment to let me know whether you enjoyed this - I appreciate you taking the time to read it!
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Sayers, D. (1949). The other six deadly sins. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.
Sara Protasi has written about her view that there are actually four types of envy: emulative, inert, aggressive and spiteful envy as depicted in the chart. She discusses this in an interview if you’re curious to learn more. After watching it, I think this is just more granular forms of envy which still fit into the two main buckets of benign and malicious.
Envy gets worse as you go up, because you keep going on your hedonic treadmill!