Admiration is happy self-surrender; envy is unhappy self-assertion. Søren Kierkegaard
Mind Hacks, Not Exactly Rocket Science, The Frontal Cortex … there are so many successful blogs out there for the Digest to admire. Or envy. In fact envy might be better. Although considered a sin, envy rather than admiration, drives us toward self-improvement. That’s according to Niels van de Ven and colleagues who provoked envy and admiration in their Dutch participants and then observed the effects this had.
For a preliminary study, 17 undergrads were asked to describe someone they knew who was better at something than they were. The more ‘benign envy’ (the person’s superior achievements are seen as deserved) provoked by this thought, as opposed to malicious envy (their success is seen as undeserved), or admiration, then the more likely participants were to say that they planned to ramp up their study time in the next semester.
It was a similar story when 82 participants were asked to recall a time they’d felt either benign envy, malicious envy or admiration (there was also a control group who didn’t do the recall task). Afterwards, those participants who’d recalled an experience of benign envy performed better at a word association task, compared with the other participants.
For a third study, a further 96 participants read about a fellow student called Hans de Groot, who’d just won a prize for his excellent scholarship. Some of the participants were asked to imagine feeling benign envy towards him, the others malicious envy or admiration. To strengthen the effect, they were asked to ponder how they’d feel and react if they met him. Once again, the participants primed to experience benign envy went on to perform better, and spend longer, on a word association task, compared with the other participants.
Having established the contrasting effects of admiration and envy, the researchers turned to the circumstances that tend to elicit one emotion more than the other. Perhaps the effect a successful person has on us depends in part on whether we think their achievements are beyond our reach. In a final study, van de Ven and his colleagues primed half their participants with an ‘effort is futile’ mindset by having them read a fictional biography of a successful scientist who’d enjoyed good fortune all his life. The other participants read a version in which the scientist’s success was all down to effort, not luck. Next, in what they thought was a separate task, the students read about the prize-winning scholar from the previous study, Hans de Groot. The important finding here was that students primed with an ‘effort is futile’ mindset were more likely to say they felt admiration towards de Groot, whereas those primed with an ‘effort pays’ mindset were more likely to say they felt benign envy. Moreover, it was the participants who felt more envy, rather than admiration, who said they planned to work harder in the next semester.
‘Is benign envy therefore better than admiration?’ the researchers asked rhetorically. ‘It might be, but although self-assertion increases performance, self-surrender feels better. So, the answer to the question whether to admire or to be envious might depend on what matters most: feeling better or performing better.’
van de Ven, N., Zeelenberg, M., and Pieters, R. (2011). Why Envy Outperforms Admiration. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin DOI: 10.1177/0146167211400421
Want to read more about the psychology of sin? Check out the Digest’s Sin Week special feature.