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Social comparison Part 3
Consequences and targets of envy, weak ties, schadenfreude, anger, shame, humiliation and pride
The first post in this series discussed Social Comparison Orientation, introduced the concept of envy, and for the most part explored envy from an evolutionary, societal and cultural perspective. The second post explored developmental psychology and benign vs malicious envy. Lets continue where we left off…
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Consequences of envy
You may recall Sir Walter Raleigh’s fate from part 1… He was courageous, handsome and smart; this indirectly led to his eventual execution. There are more modern, less brutal, cases of leaders getting rid of advisors who are too good at their job. The punishment varies with the times, but basically people in power feel threatened by others and in turn have them ostracised or even killed in order to secure their own positions. The most insane takeaway, is this holds even when advisors didn’t demonstrably ‘make a play’ for leaders’ positions.
In Robert Greene’s book The 48 Laws of Power, he writes:
Everyone has insecurities. When you show yourself in the world and display your talents, you naturally stir up all kinds of resentment, envy, and other manifestations of insecurity. This is to be expected. You cannot spend your life worrying about the petty feelings of others. With those above you, however, you must take a different approach: When it comes to power, outshining the master is perhaps the worst mistake of all.
“Never outshine the master.”
He goes on to advocate for humility and modesty, and expand on how people generally want to feel secure in their positions, and superior to those around them in intelligence, wit, and charm. As a result, the advice is to attribute any successes to your leaders’ mentorship and always credit them or at least their leadership with what you have achieved.
“Being defeated is hateful, and besting one’s boss is either foolish or fatal. Most people do not mind being surpassed in good fortune, character, or temperament, but no one, especially not a sovereign, likes to be surpassed in intelligence.”
German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) believed that envy was natural to man and therefore part of us all. He believed that envy came about in ‘the inevitable comparison between our own situation and that of others.’ When we compare ourselves to others, we highlight our differences and in doing so, highlight our own inferiorities. We start believing that we are unhappy because of these things we lack in comparison, and envy creeps in.
“To feel envy is human, to savour schadenfreude is devilish.”
- Arthur Schopenhauer, 1850, On the Suffering of the World)
In his book The Laws of Human Nature author Robert Greene explains how Arthur Schopenhauer had a simple test for envy…
Tell suspected enviers some good news about yourself - a promotion, a new and exciting love interest, a book contract. You will notice a very quick expression of disappointment, but their tone of voice as they congratulate you will betray some tension and strain in their voice. Maybe a faux “great job” or a patronising “happy for you.” Another option, he explains, is telling them some misfortune of yours, and then noticing their micro-expressions of joy in your pain. As Greene writes, “their eyes light up for a fleeting second” because people experiencing envy can’t help feeling some glee when they learn of misfortunes experienced by the people they envy.
How about envy and age? At first it might feel intuitive to assume old people envy young people, and tend to be more bitter on average, because “youth is wasted on the young” after all. This paper finds that envy declines with age! This result is consistent with other research that suggests that aging may lead to decreases in negative affect in general (Charles and Carstensen, 2007, 2009).
In other words, the younger you are, the more envy you feel. It is worth noting this study looked at adults aged 18 and above, and how this works for children is probably worth a separate study. Another particularly important takeaway in that study was the younger participants had higher incomes than the older ones, and so, despite having more money, they still felt more envy in their daily lives.
We previously discussed the Dark Triad traits and this might have something to do with the outcome here… Possessing such traits, along with feeling some envy in small to moderate doses, can enhance success. In the context of benign envy, these can probably nudge you to improve yourself too, by highlighting your own shortcomings which can be improved upon.
Conversely, older people tend to have different priorities. They have fewer years to live, and therefore feel less biological pressure to find romantic partners or have a family and as a result, status levelling is less of a priority to them. Anecdotally, I see this in many older family members who once used to take great pride in their appearance and choice of clothing… but after a certain age simply didn’t care, and would be happy to welcome guests in their pyjamas!
Targets of your envy
This will not come as a surprise but this study shows similarity is one of the strongest predictors of whether you might envy someone. You inherently know this, too. People see celebrities, sports stars or famous musicians all the time, and celebrate or revere them - hardly any regular guy is envious of Ronaldo or Messi - it’s because they all know they aren’t comparable.
Contrast this with your roommate during University; if the go on to sell their startup for a billion dollars, this might be more likely to trigger envious feelings, because you were literally sharing a room together, but they seem to have made more of their opportunities. You can truly imagine yourself being that person, and were possibly even studying the same degree which makes you extremely comparable.
In his book “Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour” Helmut Schoeck writes:
"Envy is above all a phenomenon of social proximity... Envy is always between neighbours. The envious man thinks that if his neighbour breaks his leg, he will be able to walk better himself."
Here, Schoek is describing malicious envy and similarity, and we have seen this before in part 1 when we discussed getting a salary increase and knowing whether it is more, or less than your comparable colleagues (relative versus absolute gains).
On the same theme, in this episode of the Simpsons, someone tells Marge Simpson a joke in which a genie promises to grant a man 3 wishes, but adds a condition that his wife's lover gets double whatever he gets. After first wishing for a house and a car, the man wishes to be beaten “half to death” — which Marge doesn't understand.
René Girard’s main contribution to philosophy, and in turn to other disciplines, was in the psychology of desire. He claimed that human desire functions imitatively, or mimetically, rather than arising as the spontaneous byproduct of human individuality. In other words, humans copy from people we admire (a mentor or a famous person) and from the people that are most like us (our fathers or our colleagues at work). Think about how your preferences have been shaped from your childhood, and how the promotional power of social media has grown over time. This stuff obviously works.
Lifted this from a site I found via Google:
This is a basic example of (beneficial) mimetic desire, where you imitate your friend’s desire for partaking in a triathlon and join in on the exercise. Your friend tells you about the triathlon he is training for and suddenly you feel inspired to do the same. This subject-model-object structure is called triangular mimetic desire. Use the link above the image to find out more about mimetic conflict (basically when the object of desire is scarce).
Humans compete for status with others who are closest to us, and we feel envy toward these people because we are competing for the same things. The closer we are to the other person, the greater the intensity of envy will be.
Clearly, there is also an inherent tension here. We are in a group of similar people, and we all want the same things. These people also validate our choices, for which we are grateful, yet we also envy them because we compete for the same things!
To use an example; consider a group of collector friends who are of the same income/wealth level, and similar stages of collecting. They offer each other validation, by celebrating one another’s acquisitions and determining the group’s collective heuristics; for instance, no Hublot watches unless you are mentally disabled, Journe’s watches are pretentious, and Rolex steel watches are perfect for flipping. For this mutual validation, there is mutual gratitude. At the same time, if one of the group members gets a call for a Patek 5811, there is likely to be some envy in the group, right? You’re grateful to them, yet you envy them also.
Historically, society was less egalitarian and more stratified. Social classes were clearly defined, and people didn’t really see themselves outside of their respective “box”, be it a peasant, soldier, merchant or landowner. It was easy to know who is worth comparing to, who is “the same as you”.
Today, one of the dangers Girard predicted, is materialising… everyone is competing with everyone else! As society becomes more egalitarian, the status game is now expanded to be a global game with people you may never even have met, and about whom you have little to no information to accurately determine whether they are even comparable with you at all! Regardless of this change, status competition and envy are still directly proportional to the level of proximity and similarity we feel… if you can easily imagine yourself being the other person, then you’re likely to feel maximum envy.
Many would rather suffer and be admired, than be materially prosperous yet detested by everyone around them. That’s how powerful status can be.
This explains why weak ties are so helpful. “Your weak ties connect you to networks that are outside of your own circle,” explained Mark Granovetter in a 2022 interview. “They give you information and ideas that you otherwise would not have gotten.”
Granovetter’s research formed the basis of his doctoral dissertation and the survey was one among a dozen or so other important studies that he cited in his now seminal paper, “The Strength of Weak Ties.”
The gist of this research is that people are most likely to receive some form of help (social introductions, employment opportunities, watch allocations) from people who are on the very edge of our social circles - for example, a friend of a friend, or a follower on Instagram.
This might be the case because when people are ‘weak ties’, they are less likely to be close enough to create envy, so we feel more inclined to 'feel good by helping them, while knowing that we won’t see them benefit or be reminded of their success in the same way we might be with those who we see more frequently, or who are ‘closer’ to our own social circles (i.e. strong ties).
Here’s another quote from Schoek, referencing how similarity drives envy:
“The best means of protection against the envy of a neighbour is to drive a Rolls-Royce instead of a car only slightly better than his... overwhelming and astounding inequality arouses far less envy than minimal inequality.”
The point here, is as much about relatability as it is about similarity. For a guy flipping burgers at McDonalds, billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are so far outside of his reality that he feels no envy toward them. Comparatively, a university professor or a highly educated journalist at a prestigious publication is more likely to be envious toward the very rich - that’s because the status gaps are smaller, and small differences drive stronger envy than large ones.
Even if you don’t know what schadenfreude means, you have likely experienced it at least once in your life. Perhaps your annoying brother fell into the pool as a kid, or the straight-A classmate got sick during a test and didn’t get the top mark. Maybe that obnoxious collector at Redbar dropped his watch one evening, lol. If you’ve ever felt pleasure when something bad happened to someone else, you’ve experienced schadenfreude.
Schadenfreude is a German term made up of the words Schaden, which means “harm” or “damage” or “shame,” and Freude, which means “joy.” By definition, schadenfreude means finding joy in someone else’s misfortune. Unsurprisingly, envy predicts this feeling. Seeing the targets of one’s envy experience a negative outcome is likely to trigger a bit of schadenfreude. Think about it… If you have no envy for a person at all, there is no rational reason for you to experience joy at their misfortune; it just wouldn’t happen!
In this study on schadenfreude, they suggest envy predicts schadenfreude when people are confronted with the misfortune of a relevant social comparison other. They looked at male and female participants, and compared levels of schadenfreude when they learned how others performed on tests. The males reported much stronger schadenfreude if the target was a male, than when they learned that a female performed badly on that same test. In other words, people’s envy and schadenfreude is most strongly aimed at people similar to you, who tend to be the people you view as your direct competitors.
This paper “explores whether online shaming is motivated by a person’s desire to do good (a justice motive); and/or, because it feels good (a hedonic motive), specifically, as a form of malicious pleasure at another’s misfortune (schadenfreude)”. It seems schadenfreude is therefore also a strong predictor of moral outrage in the context of social media.
You may have have wondered how much of the hate posting and cancel culture on social media is driven by something other than genuine concerns about social justice... Well, the study seems to lend support to this suspicion:
“People may experience schadenfreude first, before using claims about deservingness as a way of justifying one’s experience of malicious pleasure.”
Gluckschmerz is a term which is closely related to schadenfreude, and it literally means “luck-pain.” “It’s not an actual word in the German language,” says University of Kentucky psychologist Richard Smith. “You won’t find it in any German dictionary.”
This is a feeling which arises when someone you dislike experiences good fortune. When you observe the good fortune of someone you dislike, you experience pain. It is worth noting, in this case, this can occur even when you feel no envy toward them.
Anger, Shame, Humiliation and Pride
These are some additional status-related emotions to explore briefly, before we conclude.
Anger is a mental and physical state that stems from a belief that someone has deliberately wronged you. It contains an intention to hurt others and use aggression to manage what hurt you in the first place. In other words, you experience a threat to something you value – you feel attacked and then prepare to fight against and protect it. This tendency may restore a sense of safety and security.
Anger is often directed toward specific people, but can also be directed toward objects, unknown people, and even oneself. Psychological theories consider anger (or rage) as a negative high-arousal emotion which has evolved via natural selection to display an ability to hurt, intimidate, and dominate.
The “recalibrational theory of anger” explains how natural selection designed anger to allow us to bargain for better treatment (re-calibrate others) and how this can explain the major features of anger. In other words, anger is triggered when you are being treated negatively, and this causes the you to either impose costs on them or give up benefits from them… in order to influence how others treat you. So evolutionarily speaking, it is a tool for negotiation!
Let’s imagine your friend is supposed to meet you for dinner. Turns out, he is 1 hour late. So you get angry with him, shout at him… make him feel bad for being late. From an evolutionary perspective, according to the literature, what is happening is you are saying “You cannot treat me this way, and I am making you feel these negative things by shouting at you, to ensure you do not do it again.” It is unpleasant to be on the receiving end of anger, and the recipient incurs a ‘cost’ (being berated), which makes it effective.
Of course, the friend might have informed you about the delay in advance, or you may learn they were stuck on a train with no signal - what happens then? Researchers address this with what they call The Welfare Trade-off Ratio. This is the cost person your friend imposes on you for personal benefit. The welfare trade-off ratio answers the question – “How much are you willing to consider my welfare, and what price will you pay for it?” A low trade-off ratio usually angers people because anger is an evolved mechanism to increase the welfare trade-off ratio.
If your friend scratches your watch due to carelessness (low welfare trade-off ratio), your anger would probably be high; if it was scratched by an obvious and unintended event (welfare trade-off ratio unknown), your anger would be less intense.
That said, anger is not just about inflicting direct costs (verbal or physical). There can also be anger in the form of benefits withheld. Perhaps after 30 minutes waiting at the restaurant, you simply left and no longer took calls or messages from this friend. This is a form of ‘punishment’ via withholding your friendship.
You have probably observed, on average, that men tend to impose costs, and women tend to withdraw benefits. This is not a rule per se, but this has some logic in evolution too. Women would naturally be more cautious because females who survived historically through exercising caution, would be more likely to survive and raise children. A lot of this material on anger I lifted from this deep dive into anger - do read the link in full if this the topic of anger is of further interest.
Shame and humiliation are two additional status-related emotions. Shame can be triggered by both moral transgressions and social norm violations (Ferguson et al., 1991; Keltner and Buswell, 1996). For example, Ferguson et al. (1991) demonstrated that imagining scenarios in which one was either responsible for damaging somebody’s property (i.e., moral transgression) or passed gas in public (i.e., norm violation) both elicited shame.
Shame has essentially evolved to keep our social reputations in check. Shame can motivate people to consider morals and social norms, because transgression of these will cause others to shame us. If we are shamed, we will likely feel ashamed, and both the painful feeling of shame as well as the anticipation of future shame, will lead us to avoid such (status-damaging) actions in the future.
On humility, consider the phrase ‘Being put down’ - this is usually relative to one’s (perceived) current status. For example, a watchmaker who believes they enjoy a certain level of fame and respect, will feel humiliated by a devastating review in a reputable publication. Aside from one’s own perceived status, someone can be put down relative to the person who caused the humiliation. In this case, the act is a display of power between the ‘humiliator’ and the humiliated person; Where humiliator tries to demonstrate they have a superior status to the humiliated person by putting them down. This type of humiliation usually requires an audience, because without other people to witness a power display, there is no humiliation at all.
There was a fascinating study from 2015 which found that social pain lingers longer than physical pain.
The researchers asked subjects to recall physically painful memories such as breaking an arm or having an accident and so on, and told to rate how painful these memories were. The subjects were then asked to recall socially painful memories such as romantic breakups, betrayal by a friend, being insulted by a trusted family member, and so on, and asked to remember how painful these memories were. Thy found the socially painful memories were worse.
This is fascinating because while it is occurring, physical pain tends to be worse than social pain. If you ask someone whether they would rather break their arm or get berated by their boss in a large meeting, the prospect of breaking your arm will probably seem worse!
I saved the most insane study for last… this one finds social devaluation alone, is enough to trigger shame in people, even when they have done nothing wrong! In other words: shame isn’t even a response to actual wrongdoing, but to accusations of wrongdoing.
If someone mocks your watch in a room full of watch collectors, there’s a good chance that even if you are wearing a complete work of art, a masterpiece… you will still feel shame… go red in the face, clam up, and feel pressure in your chest as you try and defend yourself.
There’s a quote from Alain de Botton about how the absence of humiliation and a perceived status boost can help people endure immense suffering:
Provided that it is not accompanied by humiliation, discomfort can be endured for long periods without complaint. For proof of this, we have only to look to the example of the many soldiers and explorers who have, over the centuries, willingly tolerated privations far exceeding those suffered by the poorest members of their societies, so long as they were sustained throughout their hardships by an awareness of the esteem in which they were held by others.
Many would rather suffer and be admired, than be materially prosperous yet detested by everyone around them. That’s how powerful status can be.
We will end with pride, the final status-related emotion, but no less responsible for an innate drive to attain a higher status. Pride “is a feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one's own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired.” It is the feeling of being respected, admired, or held in high esteem, and it is the emotion associated with receiving status.
There are two key components of pride: Authentic and Hubristic. This study digs a little deeper into the two types, but we needn’t get into the details here. Authentic pride is based on valid accomplishments, and is associated with being outgoing, friendly, and being a good social ally. Hubristic pride has no genuine basis; there is no underlying accomplishment, and it is associated with being hostile, manipulative, and self-centered. I debated even covering this emotion here, but I chuckled to myself as I thought about all the people I’ve encountered in the hobby over the years, and how clearly they sometimes fit into one of these camps!
To end this series let’s go back to the beginning and hear from British philosopher Bertrand Russell in his book The Conquest of Happiness:
If you desire glory, you may envy Napoleon. But Napoleon envied Caesar, Caesar envied Alexander, and Alexander, I daresay, envied Hercules, who never existed.
You cannot, therefore, get away from envy by means of success alone, for there will always be in history or legend some person even more successful than you are.
You can get away from envy by enjoying the pleasures that come your way, by doing the work that you have to do, and by avoiding comparisons with those whom you imagine, perhaps quite falsely, to be more fortunate than yourself.
Envy can be an incredibly difficult emotion to avoid, but if we stop focusing on those who have more than us and instead realise how fortunate we are, this is perhaps the most beneficial step to attaining some inner peace.
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