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The Important Distinction Between Benign and Malicious Envy

Cultivating benign envy is a good habit

Can envy motivate us to work harder to achieve our goals without also making us hostile?

Early scholarly work of envy emphasized its hostile, malicious nature, but an increasing amount of research suggests that a non-hostile, benign form of envy is also common. Furthermore, this benign form can help us achieve our goals.

A key difference between benign and malicious envy is how these subtypes motivate us to deal with our envy. Both experiences are painful, but benign envy produces a leveling up motivation; malicious envy produces a leveling down motivation.

Consider many of our consumer choices. We might envy a friend because he owns a desirable car or iPhone. What do we do about the envy? Often we find a way to purchase the product ourselves. We focus on the desired object and how to acquire it. There is little impulse to take away the object or to harm its owner -- just because he already has what we want. Nor do we typically feel resentful because the advantage seems unfair or beyond our control to do something about it.

Other contexts breed malicious envy, such as when we are competing with a rival who enjoys an advantage -- one over which we doubt we can do much about. We probably feel the rival doesn't quite deserve the advantage either. We might not engage in active harm against this person, but we would probably feel a jolt of schadenfreude -- if this person suffered some bad luck.

The distinction is easier to appreciate in languages that, unlike English, actually have separate words for each subtype. Russian has words for white and black envy, for example. Most of the recent research on this distinction is led by a Dutch social psychologist, Niels van de Ven, and, indeed, Dutch is a language having the word benijden for benign envy and afgunst for malicious envy.

But how can we promote benign envy in ourselves when we are frustrated by another person's superiority? One key is to cultivate a mindset that change is actually possible. Rather than focusing on all the things that we don't have that block self-improvement, dwell on those things over which we have control.

One the studies done by van de Ven and his colleagues showed this. Students in the study read about a high achieving scientist. The details of his life story primed either "incremental" beliefs about how achievements come about (suggesting that obstacles can be overcome with persistent effort) or "entity" beliefs (suggesting that inherited traits and being in the right circumstance determined success). When the students then read about another high achieving person, this time another student, those in the incremental condition felt more benign envy than those in the entity condition. Furthermore, these students also indicated that they planned to put more hours in studying. These intentions were positively correlated with the benign envy they reported.

And so, when we feel envy, thinking incrementally about things we can do to improve ourselves, may steer us toward benign envy and its constructive effects.

William James, more than a century ago, captured this idea in his chapter on habit in his Principles of Psychology:

"As we become permanent drunkards by so many separate drinks, so we become saints in the moral, and authorities and experts in the practical and scientific spheres, by so many separate acts and hours of work. Let no youth have any anxiety about the upshot of his education, whatever the line of it may be. If he keep faithfully busy each hour of the working day, he may safely leave the final result to itself. He can with perfect certainty count on waking up some fine morning to find himself one of the competent ones of his generation, in whatever pursuit he may have singled out."

Additional reading:

Gressel, J. (2014). Embracing envy: Finding the spiritual treasure

in our most shameful emotion. New York, NY: University

Press of America.

Smith, R.H. (2013). The joy of pain: Schadenfreude and the dark

side of human nature. New York: NY: Oxford University


Van de Ven, N., Zeelenberg, M., & Pieters, R. (2009). Leveling up

and down: The experiences of benign and malicious

envy. Emotion, 9(3), 419-429. doi:10.1037/a0015669

Van de Ven, N., Zeelenberg, M., & Pieters, R. (2011). Why envy

outperforms admiration. Personality and Social

Psychology Bulletin, 37(6), 984-998.


Van de Ven, N., Zeelenberg, M., & Pieters, R. (2012). The

appraisal patterns of envy and related emotions. Motivation

& Emotion. doi:10.1007/s11031-011-9235-8