There are a lot of ways to make people not like you, but one of the most powerful — if least fair — is to be really, really successful. Nobody resents the guy who just lost his job. But the guy whose Internet start-up made him a billionaire at 25? That’s a whole different kettle of envy. Now, a study published by the Association for Psychological Science shows one way the winners of life’s lotto get the losers to like them more — or at least dislike them less.
Psychologists Neils van de Ven, Marcel Zeelenberg and Rik Pieters, all of Tilburg University in The Netherlands, have previously studied the phenomenon of envy and have concluded that it exists in two varieties: benign and malicious. (More on Time.com: Forget the Joneses: How Envy Drives Destructive Behavior)
Benign envy is what you feel when Nelson Mandela wins the Nobel Peace Prize and you decide you want to improve yourself to become a little more like him. Malicious envy is what you feel when you go to your 20-year reunion and learn that the kid you couldn’t stand in high school is now a hedge fund manager who earns 100 times your income. What you want in this case is for him to lose his shirt.
Mandela may never sense your admiration, but the hedge fund guy probably suspects your resentment — and he probably senses it coming from a lot of other people too. One way to deflect all the incoming animosity is by spreading the wealth — if not in dollars and cents then in terms of favors, flattery and other good acts. (More on Time.com: Why You Shouldn’t Make a Contract With a Psychopath)
The Dutch psychologists sought to investigate this idea with an experiment in which they recruited a group of volunteers and gave selected ones a prize of five euros. In some cases, the money was a reward for having done well on a quiz all of the volunteers took. In other cases, it was randomly given. Earned good fortune, the researchers knew, is a perfect way to foster benign envy, while arbitrary good fortune generally stirs up the malicious kind.
After the prize money was distributed, all of the people who’d been enriched were asked to give complex and potentially time-consuming advice about an assigned topic to one of the people who’d come up empty-handed. As the experimenters predicted, those who’d come by their five euros arbitrarily — and were thus likelier to be the objects of malicious envy — spent more time offering counsel than those who’d earned their reward and didn’t feel that they had to curry favor this way. (More on Time.com: Study: Paying Cash, Not Credit, Leads to Healthier Food Choices)
“If you are envied [maliciously], you might act more socially afterward because you try to appease those envious people,” said van de Ven. He and his colleagues confirmed their findings with another, simpler ploy, purposely dropping a handful of erasers but staging it to look like an accident as the volunteers who’d gotten money were leaving. Those who’d been randomly rewarded were likelier to stop and help than those who’d won their money.
In the real world, this phenomenon has had powerful implications, sometimes even when wealth is a result of hard work. A fisherman who had a very good catch might be moved to share a bit of his bounty with one who hadn’t; a farmer with a robust harvest might help out a neighbor whose fields had been more fallow. Modern-day philanthropy can be similarly motivated. Bill Gates may have had nobler things on his mind than just being liked when he established his foundation, but $24 billion in charitable grants since 1994 certainly doesn’t earn you any enemies. Ditto Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg when he gave $100 million to the Newark school system. (More on Time.com: I Know the Truth, So Don’t Bother Me With Facts)
“Money,” a character famously said in the Broadway musical Hello, Dolly, “is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread about.” Often, it’s the folks doing the spreading who wind up benefiting the most.