Joy and Pain

Exploring the best and worst of social emotions

Envious Reactions to Great Wealth

Can envy be a useful response to the widening gap in wealth in our country?

Poor envy.  It has such a bad reputation.

Who among us enjoys looking miserable, mediocre, hostile -- and petty, just because we see someone who has something that we desire?

Lately, envy is in the air, as our country struggles with how to react to the increasing concentration of wealth in a smaller percentage of the population.

In a recent opinion piece, Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute, offers a provocative take on envy’s role in our reactions.

His main points are that:

1. envy makes us unhappy and unhealthy;

2. it arises from believing that another’s advantage is unfair and beyond our control to change;

3. sadly for us, it is an increasingly prevalent reaction.

Cultural traditions and some empirical work support Brooks’ first point about the ill effects of envy on well being. But research by Dutch psychologists Niels van de Ven and others confirm a very important distinction between two types of envy: benign and malicious. They show that benign envy is not fun but it leads to a healthy, “moving-up motivation” while malicious envy is hostile and leads to an unhealthy“pulling-down motivation.” It is only the latter type that Brooks likely has in mind.

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Benign envy is no poor cousin to malicious envy.  The Dutch researchers show that at least half of American participants, when they use the word “envy,” are likely to thinking of the benign variety. Also, the marketing researcher, Russell Belk, makes a convincing claim that our modern, consumer driven culture has seen a large increase in benign envy over malicious envy. Benign envy, he argues, is often the engine driving a big chunk of the consumer behavior, stoked in part by advertising. 

Brooks’s second claim that envy arises from perceptions of unfairness raises many tricky issues. The Dutch researchers provide some evidence that people feeling malicious envy are more likely to perceive that the envied advantage as undeserved. However, should envy be equated with feelings resulting from recognizing actual unfairness? 

Of course, reasonable people differ about what they think is fair or unfair in an economic system. A big part of the conflict over how to understand people’s reactions to the current state of things in our country clearly comes down to these differences. But, as others such as Paul Krugman have pointed out, there seems to be little room in Brooks’s analysis for reactions such as righteous indignation, frustration, resentment, and anger.

How does Brooks manage this apparent eliding of envy and with these other reactions?  He notes, for example, a 2007 poll on inequality and civic engagement by the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. The poll indicated that the less respondents believed that people had an opportunity to succeed, the more they also believed that inequality has become a “serious problem.” Brooks interprets this pattern to mean that “people who believe that hard work brings success do not begrudge others their prosperity. But if the game looks rigged, envy and a desire for redistribution will follow.”  Notice that Brooks construes this pattern as having a lot to do with fairness, but he emphases only its perception, that is, “if the game looks rigged.” He then overlooks other emotions such as indignation and anger that follow by definition from perceived unfairness and labels the emotion as envy instead.  Notice also that the poll did not actually measure any emotion, and so we don’t really know how respondents were actually feeling.

Related to the perception of fairness are the points Brooks makes about beliefs about control over achieving success. He highlights recent shifts in these beliefs in the direction of less control, and he also links these shifts with envy (though, again, there is no actual data in the surveys directly supporting this interpretation).

Laboratory work on envy supports linking envy with lack of control, but, as with the perceptions of unfairness, this link is with malicious envy, not benign envy. Benign envy is associated with high control, which is probably why people feeling benign envy try to “move-up.” I remember talking with a wealthy member of a department where I taught who was aware that I was doing some research on envy.  He said to me, “Envy, isn’t that when you see something you want, and you go buy it?”

A related point is that beliefs about control are often coupled with perceptions of fairness. A reason why people can be less likely to believe that hard work will lead to getting ahead is that they can also believe that the system is rigged against them. Brooks appears to assume that people who put these two beliefs together are invariably misguided. 

Brooks’s final claim that envy has become an increasingly prevalent reaction to others’ success is weakened by the arguments I have already made. He provides no direct evidence that Americans have become more envious.  He has only interpreted people’s expressions of perceived unfairness and less control as evidence of envy. He seems to overlook even the possibility of legitimate expressions of indignation, frustration, resentment, and anger. Nor has he taken into account the possible the beneficial effects of benign envy.

In sum, there is plenty of evidence that envy, when malicious, is an emotion to avoid. Benign envy, however, may actually be something to promote. There is little direct evidence that Americans are becoming more envious, unless one is willing to interpret perceptions of unfairness and reduce control in the survey data as, ipso facto, evidence of envy.  There is a much better case to interpret the data as evidence of increased feelings indignation, frustration, resentment and anger. At the very least, the emotional reactions are more complex than a simple case of malicious envy.

To Mr. Brooks’s credit, his main goal is to suggest ways to “increase mobility for more Americans.” But it is no small thing to label someone as “envious.” I’ve never met anyone who is proud of being envious (if they were willing to admit their envy in the first place), especially if they are thinking of the malicious kind. Complaints successfully attributed to envy are instantly undermined --- as they probably should be.  By contrast, complaints successfully attributed legitimate feelings of unfairness are honored – as they definitely should be. 


Richard H. Smith, Ph.D., a Professor of Psychology at the University of Kentucky, studies social emotions.


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