Envy has been described as a vicious emotion, one of the deadliest of all sins. Have you ever envied someone else’s achievements? What is envy and why do we feel it? Researchers at the University of Cologne in Germany who studied the emotion found that envy is quite a natural response to an envied person’s perceived accomplishments. However, they concluded, envy and pride go hand-in-hand. Not only were the researchers able to show through a series of experiments that envy is a normal response to displays of pride, they discovered evidence that envy can sometimes be productive and may actually motivate a person to achieve more.
According to Jens Lange and Jan Crusius (2015), there are two distinct forms of envy:
- Benign envy: Entails positive thoughts about the envied person and results in an increased effort to attain the envied person’s perceived advantage.
- Malicious envy: Entails negative thoughts about the envied person and results in resentment and possible negative behaviors such as social undermining in groups, cheating, and efforts to level perceived differences.
The distinction is in line with an evolutionary perspective of emotions. Envy can be an adaptive response to an environmental change. By achieving or destroying perceived advantages, humans are able to survive, thrive, and overcome obstacles.
Lange and Crusius found that displays of pride can elicit either benign or malicious forms of envy. Pride can be described as a “spontaneously expressed response to victory” (Tracy and Matsumoto, 2008), and is manifested in two distinct forms based on how the successful person attributes their achievement.
- Authentic pride: Attributing success to controllable causes such as effort. (Example: I did well on my test because I studied hard.)
- Hubristic pride: Attributing success to uncontrollable causes such as personal abilities. (Example: I did well on my test because I am a gifted student.)
In their experiments, Lange and Crusius found that when a perceived competitor was more successful at a task than the subject, malicious envy was experienced when hubristic pride was demonstrated. Alternatively, when a perceived competitor was more successful at a task and displayed authentic pride, benign envy was demonstrated. Interestingly, they also discovered that when the subject experienced pride from a person they liked and the pride was shown in person, feelings of envy were less likely to occur. However, pictures and video displays of pride in instances where the subject did not know the competitor were more likely to elicit feelings of envy, both benign and malicious.
If you find yourself in a constant state of malicious envy, it may be hard to accomplish the goals you set for yourself.
In light of these conclusions, it is tempting to apply them to social media culture. Many studies have indicated people who spend more time on social media have increased rates of depression. In an article by Amit Chowdhry (2016), media researcher Brian A. Primack, MD, PhD said exposure to “highly idealized representations of peers on social media elicits feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead happier, more successful lives.”
If you feel displays of pride might be causing you to have feelings of destructive envy, here are some tips that might help:
- Limit social media intake to a reasonable amount of time each day.
- Hide or cut ties with friends who have a pattern of bragging in a hubristic way.
- Use insight and self-understanding when you have feelings of envy.
If you find yourself in a constant state of malicious envy, it may be hard to accomplish the goals you set for yourself. Worse, goals may be clouded by a desire to have what others have, rather than what is best for you. If envy begins to manifest in your life in an unhealthy way, consult a therapist for guidance on how to redirect your thoughts.
- Chowdhry, A. (2016, April 30). Research links heavy Facebook and social media usage to depression. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/amitchowdhry/2016/04/30/study-links-heavy-facebook-and-social-media-usage-to-depression/#7198bb274b53
- Lange, J., & Crusius, J. (2015). The tango of two deadly sins: The social-functional relationship of envy and pride. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109(3) 453-472.
- University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences. (2016, March 22). Social media use is associated with depression among U.S. young adults. Retrieved from http://www.upmc.com/media/NewsReleases/2016/Pages/lin-primack-sm-depression.aspx
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