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The dark side of friendship

Sometimes, when we are envious of someone, we are hopeful that they'll fail.

I read a recent post by a guest blogger, Shasta Nelson, with great interest. I've heard the phrase "it's lonely at the top" several times within the past month in various ways - in a movie, on a flight, and when I was speculating why a certain famous academic writer was single and didn't appear to be dating.

What I found curious about this post is that Nelson argues that it's a shared blame, and that both the ‘star' and the ‘followers' are responsible. Those at the top are being looked up to, but not seen. Some of the ‘followers' want to be a part of the fame and glory, hoping it rubs off on them, without actually caring about the star at all. The star, though, also probably feels intense pressure to be likeable, to have a good image, and thus, they probably don't share themselves freely or honestly.

The part that Nelson didn't mention was all the negative feelings that can arise due to envy. Yes, a follower might look up to the star, admiring them, wanting to be them. This is harmful only in as much as it stops the follower from accepting themselves. If the star is a positive role model, then this harm is reduced.

A darker, perhaps more negative interpretation is that the follower could also be waiting for the star to fail. Sometimes, when we are envious of someone, we wait with hopeful breath that they'll fail. I think this is often why we like tabloids so much. Why are we so fascinated with all the disaster that happen to celebrities? We are waiting to see them become human, to trip up and make a mistake, despite their gorgeous appearances and luxury cars.

And it's not just celebrities that we want to see fail. For some unknown reason in our evolved psychology, we often like to watch ‘tall poppies' do poorly. It doesn't matter whether it's a so-called friend, co-worker, or leader. (I think we feel very differently about family, though - maybe because of the benefits we might gain from their success.)

Tall poppies here refers to those with status, who are in high positions - who stand out from the crowd in some positive, desirable way. An easy way to explore this effect is in schools. Feather (1989) performed three studies to investigate how people feel about tall poppies. In the first study, he asked over 1500 Australian high school students to report how they'd feel in reaction to the failure of an average achiever versus a high achiever. He found that the students were more pleased with the tall poppy failing, particularly when that person then became average achieving. In a second study, an average achiever and a high achiever were found guilty of cheating, and the 360 or so students were asked about their reactions. Overall, students were far more punitive on the tall poppy, and more pleased when they fell in their performance. Finally, he examined adults to explore what sort of people tend to experience joy in the tall poppies falling. His results show that it is often those low in self esteem, who place less importance on the values involved in achievement, and who were left-leaning politically.

Kim and colleagues (2008) suggest that taking joy in the fall of a tall poppy seems to be particularly relevant when there is a perception that the high status or fame of the tall poppy is undeserved. This feeling can then turn into feelings of resentment, and perhaps schadenfreude. They propose that these feelings are the opposite to rooting for the underdog. Indeed, they found that people tend to be more ‘rooting,' sympathetic, and identify with those who they feel are struggling (even if it is just an abstract shape, rather than a person!), but only when the consequences were believed to be high and there was some self-relevance.

Ahhh, yes, schadenfreude - taking pleasure in someone else's misfortune. It seems that feeling envy might be a precursor to feeling schadenfreude (van Dijk et al., 2006), or feeling resentment (Feather & Sherman, 2002). Lots more could be said about schadenfreude, but I'll leave that for another post.

Returning to the idea of "it's lonely at the top," one explanation that I would like to offer it that the key seems to be genuineness. It is might be hard for us to detect when someone is truly our genuine friend versus a friend of convenience, let alone when someone is pretending to be a friend because it might get them somewhere. I suspect that the latter group, the "users," are the ones most likely to experience malicious joy in the falling of a tall poppy, particularly if they have low self-esteem. If we feel someone doesn't deserve something, we might be very happy to see them fail. Now if only there was an easy way to tell if a genuine friend is indeed genuine....


Feather, N. T. (1989). Attitudes towards high achievers: The fall of the tall poppy. Australian Journal of Psychology, 41(3), 239-267.

Feather, N. T. (2002). Envy, resentment, schadenfreude, and sympathy: Reactions to deserved and undeserved achievement and subsequent failure. Personal and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(7), 953-961.

Kim, J., Allison, S. T., Eylon, D., Goethals, G. R. et al. (2008). Rooting for (and then abandoning) the underdog. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38(10), 2550-2573.

Van Dijk, W. W., Ouwerkerk, J. W., Goslinga, S., Nieweg, M., & Gallucci, M. (2006). When people fall from grace: Reconsidering the role of envy in schadenfreude. Emotion, 6(1), 156-160.