Envy Theory: A New Model of the Mind

Does "the bitter politics of envy" apply to all or can envy mature into health?

Posted Feb 02, 2012

"ERDA", bronze by author, permanent installation Yale New Haven Hospital MICU
Source: "ERDA", bronze by author, permanent installation Yale-New Haven Hospital MICU

Envy theory describes a comprehensive model of mind advanced by the child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist, Frank John Ninivaggi M.D., of Yale University School of Medicine. It ascribes a primary, pivotal role to unconscious envy.

Envy theory is a conceptual exploration of hypotheses and conjectures about the mind's fundamental cognitive and emotional makeup, infrastructure, and developmental potentials. Envy theory draws from psychology, psychoanalysis, phenomenology, neuroscience, and aspects of the humanities in constructing models of envy in the human condition (1). It advances the traditional "love-hate" paradigm and introduces its substrate of "love-envy" literacy.

The envy model is a contribution to the psychological literature, better patient care, and new research. Dr. Ninivaggi's study of Eastern traditions, as described in his text, Ayurveda: A Comprehensive Guide to Traditional Indian Medicine for the West (1a), suggests correlations between envy and the Buddhist axiom of "desire," the root of all suffering.

While envy theory formulates basic propositions about human psychology, consciousness, and the meaning of personhood, it suggests several explanatory factors to make it socially interesting and practical, for example, as a research paradigm. Envy theory dynamics has roots in earliest infancy and so transcends conventional gender stereotypes. Yet, despite envy's genetic imperative, there may be important gender-based differences in the experience of envy as it develops over time.

Unconscious envy is intrinsic to the mind's binary default, the starting state nativism of brain/mind at birth. Environmental tutoring significantly modulates envy's innate dispositional loading. As temperament and personality develop, envy becomes amalgamated in a variety of ways into one's character. Many aspects of envy theory await testability. Its value in clinical applications is yet to be explored.

Unconscious envy is the primitive sensation and conflated feeling of privation, powerlessness, inferiority, and hostile distress coupled with the urge to rob and spoil in the face of advantages and their enjoyment existing elsewhere. Envy makes up a primary and nuclear dimension of mind around which cognitive and emotional experiences organize from infancy into adulthood. Unconscious envy as an orientation module denotes the mind's ultimate dissonance default state. When envy arises, the mind reverts to its fundamentally polarized grasp of all experience. The loss of an idealized desire evokes disappointment, injury, anger, unfairness, and reactive envy---destroying and deleting the provocative source.

From a metaphorical perspective, unconscious envy is akin to "biting the breast that feeds" and "poisoning the well." This is part of envy's paradoxical nature---both the envier and the envied suffer. Ironically, such unconscious envy cannot be taken personally; it is the mind's reactive default state. In its most primitive iteration, envy is a reflexive response to another based on the envier's idiosyncratic fantasy construals. In this sense, it is insular and "impersonal." This virtual absence of empathy correlates with states of narcissism.

The discovery of the "mirror neuron system" (MNS) in the macaque monkey and in humans, for example, has contributed neuroscience correlates to what envy theory proposes as the biomental epistemological mechanism of knowing, "projective internalization"--identifying and understanding aspects of the environment based on their intrapsychic and intrabrain correlates with the external environment (4, 5, 6, 7). This relationship is characterized by simultaneity, not one causing the other.

Envy theory also has correlations in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. Although envy dynamics is profoundly intrapsychic, it is embedded in interpersonal relatedness. The ramifications for social psychology are yet to be explained. Healthy survival (the healthy maturation of envy), for example, denotes both personal gain and gain for the other who is seen as biomentally similar, a relation of kin. Constructs, therefore, such as "inclusive fitness" and "kin selection" have psychodynamic relevance in envy theory.

The significance of envy as a typical state of mind, universal but dimensional in degree, is advanced. Rather than being simple and discrete, envy is a diverse set of urges, emotions, and cognitions with a tonic presence that waxes and wanes developmentally and chronologically over time.

Overt behavioral indicators of unconscious envy are suggested when one senses another to be disturbingly intrusive, greedily acquisitive, withholding, and generally unhelpful. All self-undermining attitudes and behaviors are rooted in unconscious envy. Those who are prone to anger---irrationally perceiving that they are unfairly treated or that wrongs are done to them unjustly---may have strong, underlying envy. Chronic anger turns to hatred.

Conscious recognition of envy, for example, lives in many folklore ideas such as "evil eye" and "jinx," and in expressions such as "bite the breast that feeds," "the grass is always greener on the other side," and "poisoning the well." Behaviorally, envy is the core motivating force behind defacing of property, looting and setting fires to destroy other's resources, and spoiling the pleasure of others. These connote identifying something exceedingly good and then the hostile impulse to spoil and destroy the perceived source of goodness, not badness. Prehistoric fire sacrifices of the "unblemished" have roots in envy. Envy brings constructive learning from experience to a halt (8).

The other side of the envy coin is the healthy maturation of envy. This, in fact, is the raison d'etre for introducing Envy Theory. Along with initial envy loading in the earliest eras of development, a monumental capacity to become conscious of this innate inclination exists.

The central developmental task of all humans is to become cognizant of inner impulses of destructiveness and spoiling---envy. Taking responsibility and accountability for one's potential for both goodness and "badness" or errors toward the humane treatment of self and others leads to empathy and compassion. Envy Theory calls the integration of binary opposites: "lived goodness" and "lived empathy.

People who are pleasant, agreeable, likable, and helpful are able to enjoy the fruits of their labors and those of others. This manifests the healthy maturation of envy. It is the "love" dimension of "love-envy" literacy. Civilized perspective-taking amounts to a sense of gratitude for life and the shared enjoyment of mutual creativity

Further articles in this series illustrate these provocative and bold assertions.

ERDA, original bronze sculpture by author, represents the wisdom inherent in humankind's "instinctive resourcefulness."

Dr. Ninivaggi has recently published a comprehensive text on the practical implications of his envy theory called Biomental Child Development: Perspectives on Psychology and Parenting(2013) []

twitter: @ constantine123A


1. Ninivaggi, F. J. (2010). Envy Theory: Perspectives on the Psychology of Envy.
Lanham, MD: Roman & Littlefield.

1a. Ninivaggi, F.J. (2008). Ayurveda: A Comprehensive Guide to Traditional
Indian Medicine for the West
. Lanham, MD, Rowman & Littlefield.

2. Yakahashi, H.M, Kato, D., Mobbs,T. Suhara, & Okubo, Y. (2009). When your
gain is my pain and your pain is my gain: Neural correlates of envy and
schadenfreude. Science, 323: 997-39.

3. Ninivaggi, F. J. (2010). The psychology of the aging spine. In: James J. Yue,
Richard D. Guyer, J. Patrick Johnson, Larry T. Khoo, Stephen H. Hochschuler,
The Comprehensive  Treatment of the Aging Spine: Minimally Invasive andAdvanced Techniques. Philadelphia: Saunders.

4. Gallese, V. (2005). The intentional attunement hypothesis, the mirror neuron
system, and its role in interpersonal relations. In: Stefan Wermter, Günther
Palm, and Mark Elshaw, Biometric Neural Learning for Intelligent Robots.
Heidelberg: Springer.

5. Gallese, V. (2005). Embodied simulation: from neurons to phenomenal
experience. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 4:23-48.

6. Rizzolatti, G. & Craighero, L. (2004). The mirror-neuron system. Annual Review
of Neuroscience
, 27:169-192.

7. Rizzolatti, G. & Gallese, V. (2006). Mirror Neurons. In Encyclopedia of Cognitive
NY: John Wiley.

8. Ninivaggi, F. J. (2009). "Borderline intellectual functioning and academic
problems." In: Sadock BJ, Sadock VA, Ruiz P, Kaplan & Sadock's
Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry
. 9th ed. Vol II. Philadelphia: Wolters
Kluver/Lippincott Williams and Wilkins; 2479-2490. [2016, 10th edition in press]