Humans often evaluate themselves and others by comparison. When the target person or group of that comparison has superior assets or attributes, envy occurs. Envy affects humans in economics, politics, family, social life and career. Addictive behaviors, such as compulsive eating, are among the collateral damages caused by the emotional discomfort of envy. Still, humans are far more likely to judge by comparison than intrinsic worth, which results in envy or schadenfreude. Schadenfreude is deriving pleasure from another person or group’s misfortune.

The dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) activates when envy occurs according to multiple neuroimaging studies. This happens because coming up on the short end of social comparison violates our self-concept, resulting in emotional pain, and the brain processes cognitive conflicts and social pain in the dACC. The more superior the assets and attributes of the target person in a social comparison, the greater the envy will be. Envy increases exponentially according to the self-relevance of the target person in the social comparison (i.e. if the target person is similar in age, race, gender and pursuits).

When the envied person experiences misfortunes, strong activation occurs in the ventral striatum, a key reward node in the brain. Studies that compared regional brain activations between actual gains and relative gains indicated that even when a person experienced material loss, such as losing money, knowing another person lost more money increased striatal activity (indicating joy) to the same level as an actual gain. This suggests that the ventral striatum plays a role in mediating the emotional consequences of social comparison. In addition, even when the subjects won money, if the other subjects won more money, it increased dACC activity indicating envy.

Humans’ need for social comparison raises another question. Are there neural differences in upward social comparison and downward social comparison? (i.e. Those who have more and those who have less, respectively). Various neuroimaging studies have shown that subjects do not experience envy or gloating when the target person in a social comparison has fewer assets. This holds true even if the target person is very similar in age, race, gender, pursuits, etc. 

Connecting the Dots

Envy in humans intensifies when we make social comparisons with people who have superior assets that are similar to ourselves.  The more superior that target person’s possessions are, the more envious we become. Likewise, the more we envy a target person, the more joy we derive from gloating when he or she experiences misfortune. When the target person is dissimilar to us, we do not experience strong envy if the target person in a social comparison has more assets. If the target person is neither superior in assets, nor self-relevant in likeness and pursuits, we do not envy his or her achievements, or derive joy from gloating when he or she experiences misfortune.

Ultimately the human brain is motivated to maintain a positive self-concept, and envy is the condition in which relevant social comparison information conflicts with positive self-concept. This results in emotional discomfort, which presents in the brain as a combination of two social pains: self-social pain (disappointment) and social exclusion (inadequacy in the field of social comparison). When the brain experiences pain, its default response is to either remove or reduce it. You can accomplish this by decreasing the relevance of comparison, increasing performance or possessions or deriving joy from the envied person’s misfortune.

The Take-Home Message

Ultimately, humans use social comparison as measure to assess personal success. Success is not a finite, limited commodity. Nor is success a fixed, discrete variable; it is infinite, dynamic and contextual. Thus, there is enough success in this world for everyone. The reasons humans presume otherwise lie in the problematic measures of social comparison. These measures are problematic because they lack sufficient sensitivity to accurately measure and compare humans. The commonly used measures of social comparison are crude, and comparable to trying to measure nanometers with a yardstick. Your success cannot impinge on my opportunity to be successful because your success is contextual to your life and my success is contextual to mine. Therefore, the formula for accurately comparing your success with my success would be extremely complex, and have to factor in genetics, epigenetics, developmental experiences, neuroplasticity, environmental factors, neuropeptides, intracellular chemistry, etc. etc. etc.  We do not have those capabilities. 

Envy can drive students to up their academic game. More often, it leads to changing majors and life goals. Professionally it can motivate individuals and organizations to perform better. However, most times it encourages people to discriminate, be unfair, and engage in other disingenuous and suboptimal behaviors in the workplace. Gloating is even worse because it manufactures joy by producing dopamine and the brain is a dopamine whore. Where there is dopamine, the opportunity for addiction exists. People often become addicted to gloating in various ways. Tabloid journalism and reality television is among the ways humans gloat socially. In addition, taking pleasure in other people’s misfortune often evolves into actively trying to promote it. This is a tragic mindset for a member of a social species.

However, it speaks to the highly adaptive nature of the human brain.  Regrettably, the brain consolidates and simplifies information. The consolidated and simplified lessons of social comparison come down to two basic human fears: not being able to keep up with the herd (inadequacy) and separation from the herd (social exclusion). Gloating is a demonstratively sad, adaptation by the human brain to mediate the distress caused by the fear of dying, by throwing some dopamine at it.

Our brains are biologically disadvantaged because of the disparity between the rapid changes in human technology and social structure compared to our static biology. Then we use these vague, broad ineffectual measures of social comparison. As a result, we lose sight of who we are because our focus shifts from who we are, and what we have, to who we are not, and what we do not possess. Yes, in competition, there can only be one winner sometimes. However, context is everything. For example, if a person, who has artificial legs, comes in last in a marathon with people who have limbs, did they really finish last, or was finishing the ultimate victory?  When a pipe bursts in the water main on a residential street, who is more valuable at that time and place, a plumber, or a neurosurgeon? 

The problem with our methods of conduct social comparison, aside from it promoting asocial behavior and causing unhappiness, is that it convinces us that some lives have great worth and great purpose and others do not. That is a fallacy. All human lives have equal worth and purpose. Identifying your worth and purpose, and remaining true to it and respecting it enough to place it above needless comparison is where the greatness lies. Remain Fabulous and Phenomenal!

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