Envy is a peculiarly unpleasant emotion. Why should someone else's success trigger mixed feelings of inferiority, injustice, resentment, and sometimes hostility toward a fortunate person who has achieved some advantage we don't have? As Bible stories and volumes of literature attest, sometimes envy corrupts to the point where a green-eyed person will sacrifice their own outcome if this will diminish a competitor's relative advantage. It is easy to understand why so many other unpleasant sensations should be distasteful, but why is our brain wired to evoke this painful emotion in response to someone else's success? If envy is so bad, why does it persist in human behavior? According to a recent paper by psychologist Sara Hill and colleagues, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, envy may hurt, but is good for you–it boosts your brain power.
To understand why this might be so, you must take an evolutionary view. Because it hurts, envy might command our attention and in the long run this hijacking of cognitive function could be a good way of improving an individual's success in society. By fixating on the perceived advantage of another person, one might better learn and remember how to achieve the same outcome. The researchers decided to test the possibility that envy could actually improve one's memory.
The researchers designed a test to see if people paid more attention to other people, and were better able to recall information about them, if the observers were experiencing the emotion of envy. The researchers simply asked two groups of people to examine interviews by fictitious job candidates. But before doing this, they whipped up the emotion of envy in half of the evaluators. They achieved this simply by asking half of the individuals to write about four occasions when they felt envious of someone, while the control group was asked to write about routine daily activities that they perform.
The result was that the envious evaluators spent significantly more time examining the interviewees. A scored test of recall proved that envious evaluators remembered more about the interview than the controls who where were not envious. Even when the effect of the increased time spent examining the candidates was taken into consideration, the data showed that envious people were far better able to accurately recall facts from the interview.
So possibly by hurting, the emotion of envy forces us to focus our thoughts on the source of our agitation. That's a reasonable interpretation from the data, but the fact is that envy does change our cognitive function-it boosts mental persistence and memory.
S.E. Hill, D.J. DelPriore, and P.W. Vaughan, The cognitive consequences of envy: attention, memory, and self-regulatory depletion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Doi 10.1037/a0023904