Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Envy

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The emotion of envy:
What is it and how do we manage it?

Overview[edit | edit source]

The Seven Vices - Envy
Before you begin reading this chapter ask yourself some of these questions
  • Have you ever felt such a strong desire for someone else's property that you would consider stealing it?
  • What makes envy different from jealousy and other related emotions?
  • How is psychological and physical well being affected by envy?
  • How can feelings of envy be controlled and coped with?

These are a few of the questions that this chapter will explore and hopefully will answer for you.

What is envy?[edit | edit source]

When the idea of envy comes to mind it is often associated with the seven deadly sins and other philosophical and biblical ideations. The fact is that envy is not just simply an act which one can commit and express but rather, is a very intricate emotion that is usually associated with many unpleasant feelings (Smith & Kim, 2007). The concept of envy finds its origins as early as 350BC when Aristotle defined it as a feeling of pain which is caused by the positive fortune of others (1941[factual?]. In more recent times envy has been defined as an emotion which is characterised by feelings of hostility, inferiority and resentment directed towards another person or person’s possessions such as their social status, quality of being, material wealth or personal achievements (Parrott & Smith, 1993).

Although envy is often considered a detrimental and unwanted emotion, envy can have a positive effect in certain situations. Why else would we feel it? This is because, if controlled and regulated effectively, envy can act as a strong motivator for achievement and personal gain. With this being said it is also important to note that envy can lead to self destructive behaviors and many unwanted consequences. In order to differentiate between the two different ways in which envy can influence an individual, psychologists have recently defined two different types of envy, these being Benign envy and Malicious envy, both which are related to admiration (van de Ven, Zeelenberg & Pieters, 2009).

Admiration, benign and malicious envy[edit | edit source]

Here "envy" is plucking at the wings of "fame" as a metaphor for malicious envy

In a study undertaken by van de Ven, Zeelenberg and Pieters (2009) it was found that a specific type of envy known as benign envy played a very important role in motivation. Benign envy is the emotion felt when we desire something somebody else possesses and wish we could achieve it yet also accept that the envied probably deserves what they have acquired. Another form of envy which was discovered was malicious envy which is the emotion felt when we desire another’s possession but also feel the envied do not deserve it and would prefer if neither we nor the envied possessed it (van de Ven, Zeelenberg & Pieters, 2009). Of course benign envy sounds like the better of the two however its major flaw is that it may quickly turn to admiration if not controlled properly, which can become counterproductive when dealing with motivation.

Van de Ven, Zeelenberg and Pieters (2011) argue that in order for people to deal with their envy and the pain associated with it they translate it into admiration. When this change occurs people loose their motivation as they are in reality admitting that the achievement is beyond them as it is easier to admire than to aspire. This idea is loosely based on Kierkegaard’s (1849/2008) theory that admiration or happy self-surrender occurs when we believe something is so good it cannot be attained, and that benign envy or unhappy self-assertion, occurs as a negative feeling stemmed from comparisons to other people which ultimately leads to an increased motivation[say what?]. This short overview of admiration, benign and malicious envy and their effects on motivation really shows how intricate and important envy can be to human processing.

Example in the media[edit | edit source]

Envy (2004)
Envy of another's possessions such as wealth
The 2004 comedy movie Envy is a story about two best friends, co workers and neighbours Tim Dingman and Nick Vanderpark. Nick is a loud and extroverted individual whom is constantly thinking up new and odd get rich quick schemes and on the other hand Tim is an introverted and dull individual whom is constantly complaining about his boring life. After Nick succeeds in one of his inventions and becomes super wealthy Tim becomes viciously jealous and thus starts the comedic trail of events that proceed. Throughout the movie Nick seems blissfully ignorant to Tim’s envy even though it continually grows and is shown evident by Tim. Eventually Tim becomes so envious of Nick’s wealth that in a drunken rage he kills Nick’s prized horse. Tim then expresses his emotions to Nick and the two become business partners. However, this new found comfort for Tim is short lived after Nick’s invention is found to be toxic and actually the real cause of his prized horses death. The movie then ends with the two presumably back at square one but this time as partners advertising their new invention.

Parodyfilm.svg Envy Movie Trailer (5 minute video)

Envy vs. jealousy[edit | edit source]

Envy is most often confused with the emotion of jealousy. Envy typically occurs when one person lacks another’s superior qualities, possessions or achievements and desires it or wishes the other person lacked it (Parrott & Smith, 1993). Jealousy occurs when someone experiences jealousy typically towards someone they care about and is usually in the context of a relationship (Parrott, & Smith, 1993). The easiest way to distinguish envy and jealousy is to think of them as follows. Envy occurs when someone obtains something another lacks, whereas jealousy occurs when someone is fearful of losing something, typically a relationship, that they already have (Parrot & Smith, 1993). The following table as adapted from Parrot (1992) shows the most typical distinctions between envy and jealousy:

Envy vs. Jealousy

Feelings of hostility, feelings of inferiority, contempt towards envied person, potential feelings of motivation, feelings of resentment, desire for another's possessions .


Lack of trust, fear of losing an important relationship, feelings of depression and sadness, low self esteem, feelings of anger.

Theories of envy[edit | edit source]

Evolutionary theory[edit | edit source]

The evolutionary perspective believes envy is core to human survival

As envy is a fairly new construct in the field of psychology the theories behind its existence are currently quite minimal. According to evolutionary theory, envy exists as a form of survival instinct. According to the evolutionary theory human beings act in ways which are essential to our survival (Darwin, 1859). When we apply envy to this theory we quickly see that envy, like the emotions of love and hate, allow us to scan our environment to recognise potential means of survival (Ninivaggi, 2010). This occurs through means such as hunting for food, preparing food, exercising to increase our length of life, living in a nice protective house and earning money in order to survive (Ninivaggi, 2010). Envy can take its form in a destructive manner such as wanting to take what the other person has even if we do so in a negative form. This again supports the evolutionary theory as here we are exerting the idea of survival of the fittest (Ninivaggi, 2010).

Psychoanalytic theory[edit | edit source]

Another theory of envy is the psychoanalytic theory proposed initially by Freud (1905/1962). Freud initially proposed envy as part of sexual development in his theory of penis envy which is the idea that when a girl is developing sexually she will initially be envious of her father’s penis, but in healthy development will eventually overcome this envy (1905/1962). This idea was later enhanced by Horney (1967) who redefined Freud’s theory to include womb envy which is the male equivalent of penis envy.

Both these ideas are associated with the theories of the Oedipus and Electra complex of which both aim to explore the unconscious sexual development of men and women. Envy is involved in the Oedipus complex theory as this theory proposes that a young boy desires to sexually possess his mother and kill his father in order to gain her affection (1905/1962). The Electra complex as proposed by Jung (1913) is again the equivalent in which the female envies the affection her mother receives from her father. These theories both suggest that envy initially appears in reaction to sexual development and that excessive envy later on in life is the result of unconscious conflicts involved with a failed sexual development.

Did You Know?

Did you know that in William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy Othello (1603) the colour green is used to relate to envy and jealousy. This association of the colour green and envy is very commonly used.

Historical accounts of envy[edit | edit source]

Biblical example of envy[edit | edit source]

Cain killed Abel out of Envy

Throughout history envy has been directly linked to many acts of aggression and hatred. In the bible the Hebrew story of the two brothers Cain and Abel (Gen. 4.1-16) specifically expresses envy as a motive for murder. In the story Cain and Abel both offer God a sacrifice to which God prefers Abel’s and rejects Cain’s. Due to Cain’s immense envy of God's preference for Abel’s sacrifice he kills him in a fit of rage.

Envy in modern times[edit | edit source]

Envy was a driving force in Nazi Germany

In modern times envy has been associated with crimes of hatred such as that of [w:Nazi_Germany|Nazi Germany]] in World War II. According to Glick (2002) many Germans blamed the Jews for the poor conditions following World War I. It was believed by the Germans that the Jews possessed traits of deceitfulness and cunningness which aided them in gaining power and control over Germany. The general stereotype the Germans held against the Jews were that they were powerful which caused envy within the German people and also that the Jews intentions were detrimental to German life (Glick, 2002). Of course as history has shown us this immense envy and hatred towards the Jews would ultimately lead to one of the largest mass genocides in history.

Physical and psychological effects of envy[edit | edit source]

Physical effects of envy[edit | edit source]

There appears to be a correlation between envy and poorer health conditions among people. The main way in which envy appears to affect people’s health is through the social gradient. According to Krieger, Williams and Moss (1997) people with a lower social status appear to suffer from stress and worse health in comparison to those higher in social status. Envy comes into effect here as those lower in social status are likely to compare themselves with those higher and in turn begin to feel the associated effects of envy which include stress, hostility, depression and anger (Smith & Kim, 2007). As it has been noted above people whom experience envy are likely to report feelings of hostility, depression and unhappiness. Due to these set of emotions often expressed by envious people, it is likely that they will suffer from lower social support such as finding a partner as they can appear unpleasant (Smith & Kim, 2007; Smith, Parrott, Diener, Hoyle & Kim, 1999).

In the past it has been discovered that good health can indeed be positively affected by positive emotions (Fredrickson, 2004). In this same sense Bad health has been found to be associated with negative emotions. As expressed earlier envy is an emotion which tends to elicit negative feelings which in turn will most likely cause a deteriorating health. Due to people feeling these emotions it is likely they will be again unable to adopt positive relationships and stable social standing which ultimately leads to further psychological problems and a cycle of poor health (Smith & Kim, 2007).

Psychological effects of envy[edit | edit source]

Envy can have many physical and psychological implications.

A series of experiments undertaken by Hill, DelPriore and Vaughan (2011) showed that envy does indeed have an effect on the cognitive processes of individuals. Their experiments concluded that when envy is activated people are more likely to attend to specific social targets and have an enhanced recall of the information thus improving their memory towards specific stimuli. The study also found that this enhanced recall of information was only applicable to the activation of envy and not related emotions such as admiration, social comparisons or arousal.

A recently developed scale which measures envy known as the Dispositional Envy Scale (DES) found that envy was linked to many negative mental health outcomes (Smith, Parrott, Diener, Hoyle & Kim, 1999). The DES found that envy was negatively correlated with different levels of life satisfaction and self esteem and was positively correlated with hostility, resentment, depression and neuroticism. Another scale known as the enviousness scale developed by Gold (1996) found that envy was positively correlated with depression, obsessive compulsive tendencies, anxiety, anger and feelings of inferiority. These above findings show the destructive nature of envy if it is not properly controlled and coped with.

Physiological effects of envy[edit | edit source]

It was found by Takahashi, Kato, Matsuura, Mobbs, Suhara and Yoshiro (2009) that feelings of envy and [w:Schadenfreude|schadenfreude]] activate specific parts of the brain. Through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on 19 healthy participants the study found that when envy was elicited through comparisons to other people the anterior cingulate cortex was activated. Their study also found that when the participants read about these same envied failing in some way schadenfreude occurred and the ventral striatum was activated[say what?]. The anterior cingulate cortex is an area of the brain which is involved with feelings of physical pain and the ventral striatum is involved with feelings of reward (Takahashi et al., 2009). This study was particularly important as it showed that when we are envious of someone we can experience feelings of pain and that when something bad happens to them that we can feel some forms of pleasure. This is interesting as it opens the doorway to future research on envy and how it can be controlled.

Coping with envy[edit | edit source]

Finding ways to deal and cope with envy are currently at the core of psychological research surrounding envy and its related emotions. Salovey and Rodin (1988) administered a survey to the readers of Psychology Today which asked them to express what kinds of means they employ to help deal with their envy. This was done through assessing how people coped with envy provoking scenarios using three different strategies, these being self bolstering, self reliance, and selective ignoring. Their study found that the envy coping strategies which were most effective included self reliance followed by the selective ignoring. In the selective reliance strategy responses such as not giving up and refraining from angry feelings were included and the selective ignoring included responses like dismissing the importance of the envied person’s possession. Although self bolstering was not found to be useful in reducing feelings of envy it was found to be useful is lessening the adverse feelings associated with envy such as sadness and anger. This study is just the beginning of discovering how to cope with envy with there being a great need for further discoveries on this area of interest in the future.

Quiz[edit | edit source]

1 Try and complete the following sentences using the knowledge you have gained from this chapter on envy.

Envy is an emotion which is characterised by feelings of



Envy is often confused with the similar emotion of


2 It has been found that __________ emotions are associated with ____________ Health.

Negative; Good
Positive; Good
Good; Negative
Good; Positive

3 True or False - Study of recent history has shown that envy was involved with the persecution of the Jews by Nazi Germany?


4 The __________ theory of envy suggests it is essential in our survival:


5 Over time, which colour has become associated with envy?


Conclusion[edit | edit source]

In summary, there are many different aspects involved with the intricate emotion of envy and why we as humans feel it. Although envy is usually an uncomfortable and unwanted emotion it does indeed have its positive side. Envy has been implicated in some of the worst hate crimes in history, however this is likely due to it being misused, misunderstood and incorrectly coped and dealt with. As expressed by the evolutionary theory it is believed that envy is essential to our survival. The psychoanalytical theory also suggests that envy is a healthy and natural part of development. Either way we look at it envy is something that if controlled and regulated effectively can be in part both beneficial and motivational. With this being said, envy can also be detrimental to our psychological and physical well-being if coping strategies are not implemented to help deal with it. It is important that in the future psychologists continue to study and understand how we as humans can deal with our envy and channel it into something positive such as motivation.

See also[edit | edit source]

Related book chapters
Related books on envy and emotion
  • Aristotle. (1941). The basic works of Aristotle. (R. McKeon, Compiler.), New York: Random House.
  • de Sousa, R. (1987). The Rationality of Emotion. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
  • Kristjansson, K. (2006). Justifying Emotions: Pride and Jealousy. London:Routledge.
  • Ninivaggi, F. J. (2010). Envy theory: perspectives on the psychology of envy. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Schoeck, H. (1966). Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior, Glenny and Ross (trans.). New York: Harcourt, Brace.
  • Smith, R. (2008). Envy: Theory and Research. New York: Oxford University Press.

References[edit | edit source]

Aristotle. (1941). The basic works of Aristotle. (R. McKeon, Compiler.), New York: Random House.

Darwin, C. (1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Retrieved from -

Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). Gratitude, like other positive emotions, broadens and builds. In R. A. Emmons & M. E. McCullough (Ed.), The psychology of gratitude (pp. 145–166). New York: Oxford University Press.

Freud, S. (1962). Three Essays of the Theory of Sexuality. (J. Strachey, Trans.). New York: Avon Books, (Original work published 1905).

Glick, P. (2002). Sacrificial lambs dressed in wolves clothing: Envious prejudice, ideology, and the scapegoating of Jews. In L. S. Newman & R. Erber (Ed.), What social psychology can tell us about the Holocaust (pp. 113–142). Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Gold, B. T. (1996). Enviousness and its relationship to maladjustment and psychopathology. Personality and Individual Differences, 21(3), 311–321. doi:10.1016/0191-8869(96)00081-5

Hill, S. E., DelPriore, D. J., & Vaughan, P. W. (2011). The cognitive consequences of envy: Attention, memory, and self-regulatory depletion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(4), 653-666. doi:10.1037/a0023904

Horney, K. (1942). The collected works of Karen Horney (2nd ed.). W.W. Norton Company, New York.

Jung, C. G. (1970). Collected Works: Vol. 10. London: Routledge.

Kierkegaard, S. (2008). The sickness unto death. Radford, VA: Wilder. (Original work published 1849).

Krieger, N., Williams, D. R., & Moss, N. E. (1997). Measuring social class in U.S. Public Health Research: Concepts, methodologies, and guidelines. Annual Review of Public Health, 18, 341–378. doi:10.1146/annurev.publhealth.18.1.341

Ninivaggi, F. J. (2010). Envy theory: perspectives on the psychology of envy. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Parrott, W.G. (1992). The emotional experiences of envy and jealousy. In P. Salovey (Ed.), The Psychology of Jealousy and Envy (pp. 3–29). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Parrott, W., & Smith, R. H. (1993). Distinguishing the experiences of envy and jealousy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(6), 906-920. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.64.6.906

Salovey, P., & Rodin, J. (1988). Coping with envy and jealousy. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 7, 15–33. doi:10.1521/jscp.1988.7.1.15

Smith, R. H., & Kim, S. (2007). Comprehending envy. Psychological Bulletin, 133(1), 46-64. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.133.1.46

Smith, R. H., Parrott, W. G., Diener, E., Hoyle, R. H., & Kim, S. H. (1999). Dispositional envy. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 1007–1020. doi:10.1177/01461672992511008

Takahashi, H., Kato, M., Matsuura, M., Mobbs, D., Suhara, T., & Okubo, Y. (2009). When Your Gain Is My Pain and Your Pain Is My Gain: Neural Correlates of Envy and Schadenfreude. Science 323(5916), 937-939. doi:10.1126/science.1165604

van de Ven, N., Zeelenberg, M., & Pieters, R. (2009). Leveling up and down: The experiences of benign and malicious envy. Emotion, 9(3), 419-429. doi:10.1037/a0015669

van de Ven, N., Zeelenberg, M., & Pieters, R. (2011). Why envy outperforms admiration. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(7), 784-795. doi:10.1177/0146167211400421

External Links[edit | edit source]