As readers of this series on envy have become aware, envy is a foundational psychological process with both cognitive and affective components. Thinking and feeling direct behaviors. They influence how we perceive, evaluate, make choices, and---in the end---perform in real life.
Understanding envy as it operates in nonconscious mental processing is complex. Important features, described from a consciously aware perspective, can be relatively straightforward and understandable.
Unconscious Envy Sparks Perception of Contrasts
One of envy's functions is the perception of contrasts, which implies seeing differences. Sensing differences evokes value judgments of superior versus inferior. Thus, choices stem from a plethora of nonconscious processes that emerge in awareness because of the perception of differences. Such perceptions help one to adapt to change and increase both survival and quality of life. Sensing differences correlates with assigning value to experience: poor, good, better, best, or bad, inferior, less desirable.
Perception is not an individual function; it is the product of both the individual and the environment that helps sculpt it. The inevitable social forces around have an impact inseparable from mere individual perceptions in isolation. These forces: family, friends, social context, the media, and so forth robustly influence the individual’s arriving at personal conclusions. Individuals come to conclusions both by independent thought and some yielding to group thought.
Given typical people in typical social and group settings, several major factors contribute to one’s ultimate decision-making. Of fundamental importance is perspective–taking. This denotes the individual’s ability to comprehend both personal views and beliefs and those of others that may be different. This presumes a capacity for the consensual understanding of “objective information” and its harmonization or clash with one’s own subjective positions.
Put differently, one must be able to integrate information rationally to achieve a healthy reality sense. Perspective-taking is the human’s mind’s key into intact social intelligence and mental health. It modulates the harsh contrasts that innate envy automatically evokes.
The capacity for perspective-taking becomes substantially developed by adolescence. Social interactions help one establish a sense of personal identity congruent with group standards. Group norms become guidelines for further thinking and behavior. Another growth promoting factor is the inevitable disagreements and discrepancies arising from individual-group interactions. Constructive disagreements typically stimulate further exploration and creative conclusions. Perspective-taking, in a notable way, permits rational discussion and enhances problem-solving skills. Thus, appreciating similarities and differences and working with them is health promoting.
How Does Envy Thwart or Enhance Cooperation?
Holding personal views that do not conform to convention puts one in contrast to the group. How the individual interacts with others and groups to manage this reflects his or her agreeableness and cooperativeness. Constructive dialogue is beneficial and generates enthusiasm, problem-solving, and new ideas. Destructive dialogue, by contrast, thwarts intellectual exploration.
Envy theory asserts that unconscious envy is healthy and adaptive when used to perceive differences and make constructive, quality of life promoting evaluations. Unconscious envy becomes malignant envy when it perceives contrasts as irreconcilable differences at every level of discourse. Such rigid thinking is fixed and lacks the fluidity to entertain novel perspectives.
Steadfast thought is common in several conventional belief systems such as various political affiliations, religions, ideologies, and so forth. By contrast, when beliefs become grossly extreme and out of touch with adaptive living, they deteriorate “envy’s spoiling cascade.” This goes beyond mere ideational and verbal derogation. It’s devaluation and spoiling may take the form of destructive interpersonal and group behaviors. Examples include malignant stereotype bias, brutal sectarian violence, psychotic eruptions of murder, and actual war.
The healthy maturation of envy brings various degrees of integration and reconciliation to mental functions. These appear as perspective-taking and advance emotional states of empathy. This is how envy may enhance healthy cooperation. Unbridled envy, if not identified and managed, thwarts cooperation and undermines group processes within family life, marital relations, person-to-person relations, and relations between nations.
The Healthy Maturation of Envy
The healthy maturation of envy brings various degrees of integration and reconciliation to mental functions. These appear as perspective-taking and advance emotional states of empathy. This is how envy may enhance healthy cooperation. Unbridled envy, if not identified and managed, thwarts cooperation and undermines group processes within family life, marital relations, person-to-person relations to relations between nations.
Envy, a fundamental part of the mind, is an opportunity. It remains for each of us to generate the motivation to examine this opportunity and design positive life narratives around its complex and hidden scaffolding.
Thus, besides understanding our individual innate predispositions, 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 behaviors show these values in concrete ways.
The book, Envy Theory: Perspectives on the Psychology of Envy, expands the aforementioned.