Fear of being envied makes people behave well toward others

Dec 03, 2010

It's nice to have success -- but it can also make you worry that the jealous people will try to bring you down. New research in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, has found that the fear of being the target of malicious envy makes people act more helpfully toward people who they think might be jealous of them.

In previous research, Niels van de Ven of Tilburg University and his colleagues Marcel Zeelenberg and Rik Pieters had figured out that envy actually comes in two flavors: benign envy and malicious envy. They studied who showed these two kinds of envy and found that people with benign envy were motivated to improve themselves, to do better so they could be more like the person they envied. On the other hand, people with malicious envy wanted to bring the more successful person down. Van de Ven and his colleagues wondered what the experience was like for the people who are the target of the envy.

"In anthropology, they say if you are envied, you might act more socially afterward because you try to appease those envious people," van de Ven says—by sharing your big catch of fish, for example. They wanted to know if these observations from anthropology held up in the psychology lab.

In experiments, he and his colleagues made some people feel like they would be maliciously envied, by telling them they would receive an award of five euros—sometimes deserved based on the score they were told they'd earned on a quiz, sometimes not. The researchers figured the deserved prize would lead to benign envy, while the undeserved prize would lead to malicious envy. Then the volunteer was asked to give time-consuming advice to a potentially envious person.

People who had reason to think they'd be the target of malicious envy were more likely to take the time to give advice than targets of benign envy.

In another experiment, an experimenter dropped a bunch of erasers as the volunteer was leaving; those who thought they'd be maliciously envied were more likely to help him pick them up.

"This sort of serves a useful group function," says van de Ven. We all think better off people should share with others, "but that's not something we are inclined to do when we are better off." This of envy can encourage us to behave in ways that improve the social interactions of the group.

Explore further: Intervention program helps prevent high-school dropouts

Related Stories

Hospitality turns hostile with envious employees

Sep 28, 2010

Guest relationships can become collateral damage when hotel employees envy the relationships co-workers have with their bosses, according to an international team of researchers.

Study detects prejudice in the brain

Jun 29, 2006

U.S. scientists say they've found people view members of social out-groups, such as homeless people, with disgust and not a feeling of fellow humanity.

Recommended for you

Intervention program helps prevent high-school dropouts

9 hours ago

New research findings from a team of prevention scientists at Arizona State University demonstrates that a family-focused intervention program for middle-school Mexican American children leads to fewer drop-out rates and ...

Bilingualism over the lifespan

10 hours ago

It's a scene that plays out every day in Montreal. On the bus, in schools, in the office and at home, conversations weave seamlessly back and forth between French and English, or one of the many other languages represented ...

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Corban
1 / 5 (2) Dec 03, 2010
Would this explain the animus against people who "act white" in school? For someone who studies ("deserving") they do not spread the wealth (cheatsheets?), thus incurring the wrath of those with malignant envy.
aroven
1 / 5 (1) Dec 03, 2010
fear of being envied is one of many reasons for people to behave well towards others. is not as exciting a headline.
Bob_B
not rated yet Dec 04, 2010
What a bad piece of research. Envy is a sin and only a priest can hear confessions and they are not priests therefore the numbers are incorrect.