Aren Cohen, MBA, MAPP '07 is a learning specialist working with academically, motivationally and emotionally challenged students in the leading private schools in New York City. As shown in her website and blog, Strengths for Students, Aren uses the tenets of positive psychology to teach her students to use their strengths of character to change educational challenges into educational triumphs. Full bio. Aren's articles are here.
“Thou Shalt Not Envy” is the 10th commandment Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. Envy certainly gets a bad name everywhere you look. Not only is its prohibition one of the ten commandments, but it is also one of the seven deadly sins. Nonetheless, it is part of the human condition.Envy and the Evil Eye
Although I am not aware if envy is associated with the same neurology as the fight or flight response, it does seem to be one of our more base instincts. While people do not generally act on their envy, just its existence has the potential to change behavior in significant ways, so much so that many different cultures have created different mythologies and symbols (nazars, hamsas) to ward off “the evil eye.” Some may say the fear of the evil eye is superstition, but others are believers.
For a long time I did not give much thought to envy and how it affected both others and me. I crowed about my successes without consciousness of their impacts on others and the ultimate reverberations back onto me. It was my husband, who tends to be more private and less competitive than I am, who opened my eyes more fully to the potency of the green-eyed monster in others and myself.
Does envy have a place in the world of Positive Psychology? Are there ways that can envy can benefit humanity?
Envy is a Cousin of Savoring
One of the four ways we are taught to savor is “basking,” or bathing in our own self-accomplishment. While we may want to share good things with others, we nonetheless are mindful of other’s potential jealousies. Baskers are sometimes aware that it is dangerous to cross the unwritten line between basking and what is perceived as boasting and excessive pride. (It is important to note that like envy, pride is also one of the seven deadly sins.) As a result, baskers sometimes opt for private rather than public recognition of their achievement (think of anonymous donors) because they don’t want to provoke hostile jealousy.Multiple Forms of Envy
Recent research out of the Netherlands has found that people who fear the evil eye are more inclined to be helpful to others. Niels van de Ven of Tilburg University and his colleagues Marcel Zeelenberg and Rik Pieters have been studying envy to see its effects. In prior research, they figured out that envy actually comes in two flavors: benign envy and malicious envy.
Benign envy motivates people to improve themselves to become more like the person they envy. My example here involves two school friends. When Jane is envious of the A that Nicole on her last science test, she studies harder for the next test in the hopes of matching or besting her friend.
Malicious envy makes people want to tear down the person they envy. It is malicious envy that gives us the German word Schadenfreude, which literally means getting joy from the misfortunes of others. Malicious envy causes people to be afraid of going too far in their basking.
Benign envy, which leads to self-improvement, could easily be considered a type of positive psychology. Benign envy is akin to healthy competition, and when the accomplishments of another drive us to develop ourselves that is a good outcome. It raises well-being for everyone.
Where Does Malicious Envy Fit?
However, what about malicious envy? It seems unlikely that there much good accrues to the person feeling malicious envy. It is not beneficial to wish another’s misfortune. But what about the people who are the target of this envy? Are they aware of it? What do they do in response to it?Van de Ven and colleagues found that in an attempt to ward off the potentially destructive effects, the fear of being envied maliciously makes people act pro-socially.
Using three experiments, they found that people who were in a advantageous situation and could be envied were more likely to give time-consuming advice to potentially envious people. They were also more likely to help potentially envious people pick up accidentally scattered erasers. People who were better off did not increase their helping behavior toward people in general, or, for that matter, toward people they suspected as being benignly envious. Their helping behaviors only increased towards those they believed might become maliciously envious.
The research did not measure the effects of this helping behavior on either the giver or receiver of the help, nor which situation caused the envious person’s feelings to decrease more significantly: when they were given advice or when they were helped with the erasers? I suspect that being helped with the erasers would probably have done more to deflect malicious envy than the advice, which, unless delivered with the utmost sincerity and goodwill, could have been perceived as condescending or supercilious.
Van de Ven and colleagues draw the conclusion that the advantaged act more pro-socially as an “appeasement strategy.” One has to wonder if this is perceived as an appeasement of the people’s jealousy, or an appeasement of their own guilt about their achievement/good fortune. Which ever the case may be, our intuitions and sympathies, which for centuries have made us conscious of “the evil eye” of others, are useful for relationship dynamics because they trigger pro-social behavior that is likely to dampen the potentially destructive effects of envy, at the same time helping to improve the situation of people who are worse off.
Bryant, F. & Veroff, J. (2007) Savoring: A new model of positive experience.. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Exline, J.J., Single, P.B, Lobel, M. & Geyer, A.L. (2004) Glowing praise and the envious gaze: Social dilemmas surrounding the public recognition of achievement. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 26,119-130.
van de Ven, N., Zeelenberg, M, & Pieters R. (2010) Warding off the evil eye: when the fear of being envied increases pro-social behavior. Psychological Science. 21(11):1671-1677.