The Triggers of Envy Are Different for Men and Women.

The Triggers of Envy are Different for Men and Women.

Posted Jun 09, 2009

In my last post, I discussed the sex-specific ways by which men and women experience sexual versus emotional infidelity. This approach led my colleague and former doctoral student Tripat Gill and me to explore whether the same evolutionary logic might be applied to the manner by which men and women experience envy toward same-sex rivals. Hence, rather than simply asking which of the two sexes is more envious in a general sense, we sought to establish whether the triggers of envy might be sex-specific (e.g., men are more envious of other men's social status more so than their physical beauty; the reverse is true of women). But first, a few general comments about envy.

Envy is a universal emotion that has captivated writers, scientists, philosophers, and theologians alike. The following Danish proverb captures quite eloquently the universality of envy: "If envy were a fever, all the world would be ill." Envy is one of the seven deadly sins. Can you name the other six without Googling the response? Think back to the movie Seven starring Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, and Gwyneth Paltrow. Incidentally, you may be interested in checking out chapter 6 of my book The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption, wherein I provide a Darwinian analysis of the seven deadly sins.

Returning to our envy study (presented at the Human Behavior and Evolution Society Meetings in 2005 but as of yet unpublished), we administered a wide range of domain-specific as well as domain-general items to gauge the extent to which men and women might experience envy. An example of a domain-general item is the following: "I feel envy every day." Note that such an item is not specific to a particular domain and hence it gauges a domain-general dispositional trait. Examples of domain-specific items included "One of your same sex siblings has a better job than you" (kin envy), "Has a romantic partner that many people find attractive" (mating envy), "Is able to find attractive sexual partners very easily" (mating envy), "Has great athletic build", "Has very clear skin", "Is extremely intelligent and smart", "Is well connected to important and powerful people", "Drives a very expensive car", "People think is charismatic and charming", and "Has a great sense of humor". Our hypotheses were as follows: (1) No sex differences would be found on the domain-general items, as men and women are equally envious in a general dispositional sense; (2) As far as the domain-specific items are concerned, each of the two sexes would be more envious on those items that are evolutionarily-speaking of differential import to them (e.g., social status and physical beauty are self-attributes that are more important to men and women respectively).

Our findings were largely supportive of our hypotheses albeit there were some unexpected albeit highly interesting results. First some of the expected findings included: (1) Men and women were equally envious in a general dispositional sense; (2) Men were more envious of same-sex rivals who possess athletic builds, good muscle tone, who could easily attract a wide range of sexual partners, and who had a good-looking existing partner; (3) Women were more envious of same-sex rivals who were beautiful and young. As far as the unexpected findings, these included: (4) Women were more envious of the status of same-sex rivals and of the intelligence of same-sex rivals, and were more envious on each of 13 items that captured kin-related envy (this was very surprising to us).

There you have it. Men and women are quite similar when it comes to their general proclivities to experience envy, but quite dissimilar when it comes to specific evolutionarily relevant triggers of envy. Vive nos différences!

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