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Envy is Our Default Setting

2012 February 16
by Eric Horowitz

Envy is a shitty thing. In addition to feeling bad that there’s something you don’t have, you often feel bad about how stupid it is that you’re envious. The good news is that a new study by Jan Crusius and Thomas Mussweiler should alleviate the negative feelings that stem from the latter situation. Through a series of experiments they found that envy appears to be our default setting, and it is only through the unconscious expense of cognitive resources that we are able to avoid feeling envious.

We propose that social comparisons with better-off others trigger an impulsive envious response that entails a behavioral tendency to strive for their superior good. However, given that the experience of envy is painful, self-threatening, and met with social disapproval, people typically attempt to control their envious reactions. Doing so requires self-control capacities, so that envious reactions may only become apparent if self-control is taxed. In line with these predictions, four experiments show that only when self-control resources are taxed, upward comparisons elicit envy paired with an increased willingness to pay for, to spontaneously purchase and to impulsively approach the superior good.

We often overlook how much of our daily life is driven by psychological processes that evolved to serve our ancestors hundreds of thousands of years ago, and envy is a good example of this. When a neanderthal’s only goal in life was to improve his chances of reproduction by becoming an alpha male, envy helped keep his focus on that goal. Unfortunately, nowadays envy is only useful when is motivates you to specifically achieve something positive that would not have otherwise been achieved.

This study also tickles my futurist bone. One of the medium/long term questions about the future of humanity is how successful we’ll be in identifying and eliminating the maladaptive psychological mechanisms we’ve developed through millions of years of evolution. Imagine if you could instantly eliminate envy in situations where it’s likely to be unproductive (“that guy has a prettier girlfriend than me”), and let in linger in situations where it has the potential to be productive (“Joe is getting more playing time than me.”) I think in the long run — say anywhere between 50 and 200 years from now — our formal education systems will be focused on teaching these psychological tricks.
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Crusius, J., & Mussweiler, T. (2012). When people want what others have: The impulsive side of envious desire. Emotion, 12 (1), 142-153 DOI: 10.1037/a0023523

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