Can Envy Ever Be a Positive Emotion?
The debate about “benign” and “malicious” envy
Posted May 12, 2017
You’ve had your eye on a management position for some time now, and you’ve been diligent about working toward your goal. You’ve followed your boss’s advice on how to improve your credentials. You’ve put in long hours and lots of overtime. When a management position finally opens up, you’re certain that it’s yours.
Then your boss announces he’s promoting your younger colleague Brent to the position. Sure, Brent’s got movie-star good looks and a silver tongue that charms just about everybody. But he hasn’t been with the company nearly as long as you have, and he doesn’t work nearly as hard as you do. You really deserved that promotion.
You’re not just disappointed that you didn’t get the position. You also feel a strong loathing toward Brent now that you didn’t feel before. You resent the fact that he’s got what you’ve wanted for so long. You find yourself making negative comments about Brent to your other workmates. And you find yourself daydreaming about ways to knock Brent off his pedestal instead of doing your job.
Envy is a complex social emotion. It starts with the perception that someone else has something of value that you don’t have. But this perception is also accompanied by a painful or unpleasant feeling. From an evolutionary perspective, envy provides us with information about our social standing and the drive to improve our position in society. In this sense, some form of proto-envy is likely experienced by non-human animals as well, especially among the ambitious upstarts climbing their way up the pecking order.
But envy also has a dark side. Instead of focusing our efforts on gaining the things we want in life, we brood over what we don’t have and resent those who have what we want. The experience of envy is doubly damaging, as we not only feel bad about ourselves, we also harbor ill will towards others who’ve done us no wrong. No wonder envy is considered one of the seven deadly sins.
Traditionally, envy has been viewed by religious leaders, philosophers, and psychologists alike as an evil that we must struggle to free ourselves from. But in recent years, some psychologists have argued that envy may have a bright side, specifically when we use envious feelings as motivation to improve ourselves. This “benign” envy contrasts with “malicious” envy, in which we’re motivated to do harm to the one who bested us.
When Brent got the position you wanted, it was quite natural to feel envious. But there are different ways to deal with that envy. You can scheme to knock him down a peg or two, in which case you’re experiencing “malicious” envy.
Or you can learn from Brent and try to emulate his success. Maybe you should adopt Brent’s cheerful, friendly demeanor, instead of being so serious all the time. And perhaps you can learn from Brent how to tell which assignments really require your full effort, instead of trying to perform to max on everything. This is what “benign” envy is all about.
In recent years, the distinction between “benign” and “malicious” envy has spurred a lot research on this complex social emotion. However, psychologists Yochi Cohen-Charash and Elliott Larson argue that the contrast leads to more confusion than clarity. More specifically, they maintain that psychologists who argue for two types of envy are conflating the emotion itself with the behaviors it motivates.
Emotions are feelings that arise in particular situations, and they perform two functions. First, they provide us with rapid information about current circumstances, in particular the presence of threats or opportunities. An odd noise or unexpected movement could signal a predator or other danger, and this triggers a sense of fear. Likewise, we get excited by the presence of tasty food or an attractive mate.
Second, emotions guide our behaviors. When we feel fear, we take action to protect ourselves. But when we’re happy, we’re motivated to pursue new opportunities and expand our social network. And when we’re sad, we withdraw from activities to get our mental house in order.
In sum, emotions tell us about our current situation and how to respond to that situation. But it’s also important to distinguish between the emotional experiences themselves and the behaviors they engender. This is why Cohen-Charash and Larson argue that the distinction between “benign” and “malicious” envy is misguided.
If “benign” and “malicious” envy are in fact two separate emotions, then there should be some difference between the two experiences. For example, both fear and anger are emotional responses to threats, but fear drives us avoid the danger, whereas anger drives us on the attack. There are two different behavioral outcomes, but the two emotions are also experienced differently—fear and anger just don’t feel the same. However, the same can’t be said for “benign” and “malicious” envy. Instead, the initial painful experience of knowing someone else has what you want is the same, regardless of how we respond to it.
When we say that emotions drive our behaviors, it makes it sound as though we’re nothing more than the hapless victims of our passions. This may very well be true for other animals, but we humans have the capacity to rethink our emotions. We can let our fears turn us into cowards, or we can turn our fear into courage and face our challenges.
And it’s the same with envy. The emotion itself provides us with important information about our rank in the social order. But we also have a choice. We can either let envy corrode our sense of self-worth and the well-being of our social relationships. Or we can turn the passion of envy into the power to improve ourselves.
Cohen-Charash, Y. & Larson, E. C. (2017). An emotion divided: Studying envy is better than studying “benign” and “malicious” envy. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26, 174-183.