Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Oct 16, 2020

Envy Hurts Not Only Us but Also Those Around Us

by Anna Maria C. Behler
Sad female teenager envious of couple seen embracing in the distance

Feeling envious is not a pleasant experience: we feel as though we are lacking something, and this can often make us feel inferior to other people. But the negative effects of envy may extend beyond how we feel to have an impact on our relationships with other people. In fact, there’s reason to think that the negative experience of envy can lower people’s willingness to help others and maybe even make people more likely to harm others.

My colleagues and I conducted two studies in which we had people recall a specific memory from their life and write about it. Some of the people were told to write about a time they felt envious, and some of the people were told to write about a time they felt grateful. We chose gratitude as a comparison emotion because it is the opposite of envy; whereas we feel envious when we don’t have something we want, we feel grateful for something we have, and that positive emotion often extends to others. We also had some people write about a neutral topic such as a trip to the grocery store or what was in the room around them so that we could also compare the negative and positive emotions of envy and gratitude to a neutral experience.

In the first study, we found that participants who were feeling envious were less likely to help a stranger. We set up situation where a researcher posing as another participant dropped a canister of pencils near our participant so we could record how much the participant helped pick up the pencils, if at all. Despite the fact that that the pencils were dropped right next to our participants, envious people were less likely to help and also picked up fewer pencils even when they did!

In the second study, we set up a situation where participants had the opportunity to assign puzzle tasks to another person, believing that the other person had to complete the task in a short amount of time to earn a reward. Thus, we could measure participants’ tendency to harm other people by the difficulty of the puzzles they assigned to the other person; harder puzzles would reduce the other person’s chance to perform well and get a reward. It turned out that envious participants were more likely to assign difficult puzzles to the other person. They were even more likely to admit to doing it because they wanted to hurt the person’s chances of earning the reward.

Our research was among the first to experimentally examine the behavioral effects of envy and highlighted the effects of this negative emotion not only for the person who feels envious but also for those around them. Envy can negatively affect how we feel toward others and how we treat them, suggesting that this emotion has far more impact than previously thought.


For Further Reading

Behler, A.M.C., Wall, C.S.J., Bos, A., & Green, J.D. (2020). To help or not to help?: Assessing the impact of envy on prosocial and antisocial behaviors. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 46(7), 1156-1168.

 

Anna Maria C. Behler is an assistant professor at North Carolina State University. She studies how emotions like envy, nostalgia, and empathy influence our relationships and behaviors.

 

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