Forget the Joneses: How Envy Drives Destructive Behavior

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Keeping up with the Joneses is a well-established aspect of the human condition: we want what our friends, neighbors and co-workers have, whether it’s a sports car, a high-powered job or cute new shoes. But a new study finds that depending on the nature of your envy — benign or malicious, that is — you’ll pay a premium to either imitate the Joneses or do them one better.

Researchers from Tilburg University in The Netherlands studied envy-triggered behavior by asking students what they would do in certain social contexts. So, for instance, the authors asked students to imagine that a peer had an iPhone (or an internship, or some other desirable thing) that they coveted. The participants were then asked to imagine feeling envious and admiring of the fellow student (benign), envious and begrudging (malicious), or simply covetous of the product itself. (More on How Not to Feel Lonely in a Crowd)

The study results, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, showed a complex pattern of decisionmaking. Participants who felt benign envy said they were willing to pay about $110 more to have an iPhone, after coveting their friend’s device. But people who maliciously coveted the iPhone were more likely to pay a premium for a related but different gadget: the BlackBerry. The findings are explained in a statement by the journal:

“Note that two types of envy exist: benign and malicious envy,” the authors explain. “Benign envy exists if the advantage of the other person is deserved, and motivates people to attain a coveted good or position for themselves. This more motivating type of envy makes people pay an envy premium for the products that elicited their envy.” On the other hand, malicious envy occurs if the other person is thought to be undeserving; it evokes a desire to “pull down” the other person.

The study reveals that our impulse to judge the deservingness of others has more to do with how we view ourselves than with anything to do with our peers:

Envy is not the result of all upward comparisons to another person, but primarily from those with people that are superior in a domain that is important to oneself. Social comparisons are more likely to be made with people who are initially similar, and indeed the more similar another person is, the more intense the envy is expected to be if that person is better off.

Benign envy has a certain logic to it: you wish to be urbane and wealthy, so when you see a similar striver enjoying a new status object, you believe you deserve it as well and you are willing to pay a premium to get it. Meanwhile, malicious envy employs a very different system of thought: if someone you’ve deemed junior to you suddenly gets an object you want, you wish to prove your superiority by degrading their new possession. To do that, you’ll pay a premium for a competitive but slightly different item. (More on Amnesia and a Camera: Photos as Memories)

Benign envy, as its name suggests, isn’t necessarily destructive (except maybe on your bank account), but malicious envy does result in negative behavior. From the study:

Maliciously envious people feel frustrated and try to level the difference with the superior others by pulling those others down. Benignly envious people also feel frustrated, but they
try to level the difference by moving themselves up. It is important to note here that both types of envy are not associated with a motivation to be like the other, but rather they motivate behavior to solve the inequality by increasing one’s own (benign envy) or decreasing the other’s relative standing (malicious envy).

So the next time you find yourself jealously eyeing a friend’s new flat-screen TV or designer handbag, stop to consider what’s motivating those feelings. The price of keeping up can get pretty steep.

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