Being Envied Is Not Enviable

Whether or not you worked hard for what you have, you may become the object of another person’s envy. As well, your appearance, even though it may have little to do with your own efforts, can trigger envy in others.

We don’t usually consider what it is like for those who are envied, but people who are the recipients of envy can feel uncomfortable and hurt. Imagine having someone dislike you, or even hate you, because you have an attribute, a possession, or a privilege that they want and are lacking. The emotion of envy can be triggered in circumstances that involve a social comparison where someone perceives that you have possessions, attributes, or attainments that diminish their own status (Silver & Sabina, 1978; Smith & Kim, 2007). These triggers are often along the same lines as admirable qualities, but admiration lacks the hostility of envy. In either case, people will glamorize or idealize who you are or what you possess. Yet the flavor of envy is ugly whereas the essence of admiration is warm, even if it creates discomfort in those who are admired.

Researchers found that people are more likely to think about a person they envy, pay attention to details about them, correctly remember that information much more than they would with someone who is not envied, and that such envy can interfere with their cognitive skills (Hill, DelPriore, & Vaughan, 2011). So if you attend an event, and you are someone who is envied, it is likely that others will focus on information or details about you as well as on your behavior. The next day they might remember more about you than about anyone else at the event. Yes, it is creepy, however, preoccupation with an envied person is compelling, even if it is a waste of time.

In order to adjust the measurements that will neutralize envy, those who envy you will have to diminish you, elevate themselves, or do both. Envy can make a person preoccupied with comparison and repeatedly measure their self-worth against what they perceive to be your own. Although envy can motivate someone to damage the position of the person who is envied, either in their imagination or in reality, their envy can also make them work harder in order to attain what the envied person has.

Some advertising agencies use envy as a marketing tool, since products sell best when they evoke envy in the consumer (van de Ven, Zeelenberg & Pieters, 2009). Psychological researchers have found that attempts to gain envied social status influence consumer choices, such as the desire for “green” products when shopping in public (but not in private), even when those products cost more than their nongreen equivalents (Griskevicius, Tybur, & Van den Bergh, 2010). And speaking of becoming green from envy, there is also being green with wanting to be envied. Buyers of petrol-electric hybrid cars report that social influence and projecting a green image were more important considerations than quality and appeal in their purchases (Chua, Lee & Sadeque, 2010).

Envy can be hazardous to the person who is envied. For example, should you believe someone who envies you? If you are involved in a negotiation, you may want to pay attention to whether or not that person is envious. Researchers found that where social comparisons exist, for example if the person with whom you are negotiating thinks your life is better than his own, envy is triggered which promotes deception (Moran & Schweitzer, 2008). In addition, envy also helps that other person justify his deceptive behavior. Activated emotions such as envy can influence ethical decision-making and might even give some people an advantage where they don’t deserve it.

However, there are ways to lessen the envy that someone might experience toward you. Being helpful or friendly to a person who envies you is a strategy that can diminish the destructive effects of their envy (van de Ven, Zeelenberg & Pieters, 2010). According to these researchers, people who fear being envied tend to behave in ways that are pro-social–helping others who might envy them. They speculate that people who are better off might use such an appeasement strategy to dampen the destructive effects of envy, and it can help to improve the situation of those who are worse off.

But what about people who want to be envied or admired, whether or not their desire is conscious? Certainly, achieving some status that is enviable or admirable provides tangible evidence that you are worthy, and this can possibly reverse the effects of some perceived injustice that formerly injured your sense of your self. Competitive strivings may be shaded with a wish to achieve recognition by being admired or envied. However, regardless of the quality in question, admiration can transform into envy, at which point you may be bombarded by hostility. The daggers that accompany envy are anything but enviable.

So if you doubt that emotions influence human behavior and decision making, step back and take another look at envy as one of many examples. And, in doing so, you may hope that you are not envied. It is likely a place that is lonely.




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