Make Your Own Luck

Good fortune isn't completely out of your hands. How you play the cards you're dealt may be just as important. Plus: How superstition sneaks up on us, and what happens when the numbers favor us.

Envy's Handiwork: Constructive or Destructive Design

Envy’s ability to thwart or enhance cooperation

As readers of this series on envy have become aware, envy is a foundational psychological process with both cognitive and affective components. Together, thinking and feeling direct behaviors by influencing how we perceive, evaluate, and make choices. Behaviors are driven in this way.

Understanding envy—unconscious envy—as it operates in nonconscious mental processing is complex. Some important features, at least described from a consciously aware perspective, are relatively straightforward. One of these is the perception of contrasts, which implies seeing differences. Sensing differences, in turn, evokes value judgments of superior versus inferior. Thus, the choices an individual makes stem from a plethora of nonconscious processes that emerge in awareness as a result of the perception of differences. Such perceptions help one to adapt to change and—it is to be hoped—increase survival and quality of material and psychological life. To this end, sensing differences affords one the ability to assign value: for example, poor, good, better, and best. However, perception is not merely an individual function; it is the product of both the individual and the environment that helps sculpt it. The inevitable social forces around do have an impact inseparable from mere perceptions. These forces, namely, family, friends, educational context, occupation, politics, the media, and so forth robustly influence the individual’s arriving at personal conclusions.

It may be reasonable to say that an individual comes to conclusions both by independent thought and by a yielding, which is an acceptance of majority opinion (i.e., conformity). Of course, in this discussion, attention to the normal or typical person and group with their typical heterogeneity is implied. Significant deviance that is malignant, destructive, or psychopathological is beyond the scope of this cursory examination.

Given typical people in typical social and group settings, there are several major factors that contribute to one’s ultimate decision-making process. Of fundamental importance is perspective –taking. This denotes the individual’s ability to comprehend in a rational manner both personal views and beliefs as well as those that are different and held by others. This presumes a capacity for the consensual understanding of “objective information” and its harmonization or clash with one’s own subjective positions. This capacity sufficiently, though not fully, developed by adolescence for social interaction helps one to establish a sense of identity in reference to group standards, and also to use group norms as guidelines for further thinking and behavior. Another factor is the inevitable disagreements and discrepancies that arise from these individual-group interactions. Constructive disagreements typically stimulate further exploration and creative conclusions. All these considerations, notably perspective taking, permit rational discussion and problem solving.

Studies in scientific psychology have demonstrated the immense value of having at least one social partner who supports in a warm way one’s own cherished values. This dyad encouraging reinforcement appears to withstand group pressure to conform so that, in effect, a group’s unanimity may be questioned and broken. Differences of opinion and nonconformity to conventionally held social values whether they have larger (for example, choosing democracy over communism) or smaller scale import (choosing vanilla over chocolate ice cream) are therefore possible and healthy---as long as they remain non-destructive, especially through acting out.

At this point, the leading question, How does envy thwart or enhance cooperation? can be addressed.

Independence or holding personal views that do not necessarily conform to conventional standards typically remains in dialectical contrast to views of the group or held by a majority of the group. The manner in which the individual interacts with others and groups, in part, reflects his or her agreeableness and cooperativeness. We presume, as mentioned earlier, that constructive dialogue is beneficial and generates enthusiasm as well as new ideas. Destructive dialogue, by contrast, thwarts intellectual exploration and blocks what has been termed “divergent thinking.” Divergent thinking denotes broad based thought that is open to new possibilities and can generate creative excursions previously unaddressed.

Envy theory asserts that unconscious envy becomes malignant envy when it perceives contrasts as irreconcilable differences at every level of discourse. Such positions of rigid thinking are fixed and lack the fluidity to entertain novel perspectives. Although more benign forms of such trenchant thought may be common in a number of conventional belief systems such as various political affiliations, religions, and so forth, when it becomes extreme, it may deteriorate into what I have termed “envy’s spoiling cascade.” This goes beyond mere ideational and verbal derogation, and may take the form of destructive interpersonal and group relations. Examples include malignant stereotype bias, brutal sectarian violence, and actual war.

In conclusion, the healthy maturation of envy brings about various degrees of integration and reconciliation that may appear as perspective taking, and advance toward emotional states of empathy. This is how envy may enhance healthy cooperation. Unbridled envy, if not identified and managed as has been discussed at length in my book, "Envy Theory," thwarts cooperation and undermines group processes from family life, marital relations, person-to-person relations to relations between nations. Thus, envy as a fundamental part of mind is an opportunity, and it remains for each of us to generate the motivation to examine this opportunity, and choose to design positive life narratives around its complex and mostly hidden scaffolding. Thus, in addition to an individual’s innate predispositions (including genetic and cultural), learning from the environment is essential to healthy survival. Envy Theory endorses and gives special attention to positive values—constructive dialogue, nonviolent human coexistence, going beyond bedrock stereotyping of others, agreeableness, and mutual cooperation/helping.