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On envy

Today we explore the emotion of envy with Dr. Sara Protasi, author of The Philosophy of Envy, Cambridge University press, 2021, Doctorate in analytic philosophy from the University of Bologna, PhD in Philosophy from Yale University, and Associate Professor at the University of Puget Sound.

David: Is envy a complex combination of emotions?

Sara: No, I wouldn’t say so. Envy is usually defined as one emotion, albeit a complex one. I define it as an aversive (that is, unpleasant or painful) response to a perceived inferiority or disadvantage vis-à-vis a similar other, pertaining to a domain of self-importance or self-relevance, which motivates to overcome such inferiority or disadvantage, usually either by “pulling” the envied down to one’s level, or by “pushing” oneself up to theirs (my definition of envy isn’t particularly controversial, and is backed up by empirical evidence and grounded in the philosophical tradition).

This may sound complicated, so here’s an example: an Olympic skater may be envious of another skater who is the same gender and roughly the same age (and thus who competes in the same category as them) but who’s a little stronger or more accomplished than them. Perhaps the envied consistently beats the envier in competition, or perhaps they are more appreciated by the fans. Since for an Olympic athlete their sport is a self-relevant or self-important domain (that is, it defines who they are as a person), this perceived inferiority is painful, it’s a source of distress, especially given their similarity. Painful emotions are powerful motivators: we don’t like this pain, so we want to do something about it. In the case of envy, we are motivated to not feel inferior anymore. The skater can either become as good or even better than the competitor, by training harder or hiring a better coach, thus pursuing self-improvement and self-betterment, or they can try to worsen the other person, by sabotaging them or spoiling their talents, perhaps hiring a hit man to kneecap them (as Tonya Harding was suspected to have done).

David: How do you study envy?

Sara: Different scholars study envy in different domains and with different methodologies.

Anthropologists usually study envy in communities all around the world, often quite different from each other, from preindustrial rural societies to contemporary industrialized ones, in different cultural traditions. This type of approach is useful, among other things, to give a sense of the range of possible types and manifestations of envy, but also have shown that envy is a cross-cultural emotion, which we find in some form or other everywhere.

There’s not a ton of research in sociology, but there is a very famous book on envy by a sociologist, Helmut Schoeck, titled “Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour”, which is still widely cited. I am not a sociologist, so I am not sure how much his methods are valid by today’s standards. It felt a little dated to me, and it also has a clear conservative bent. As far as I know, not much has been published in sociology on envy since, which is a little surprising to me.

Psychology, among the social sciences, is where the action is! Social psychology, in particular, has seen a boom of research on emotions, and that includes envy. There’s lots and lots of envy research now, and there are even some studies on the neurobiology of envy.

Of course, psychoanalysis has been into envy since its inception (think of the notorious Freudian notion of “penis envy”). Both psychoanalysis and psychology think of envy primarily from the perspective of the individual psyche, although now there is increasing interest in envy as a group emotion. Psychologists have run many studies on envy, although envy is tricky to measure and elicit experimentally, because people tend to deny that they feel it.

Historians of ideas also have worked on envy a bit, especially those working on the Greek world, where the notion of phthonos is quite important (the gods in Greek mythology are said to be jealous/envious—the distinction between jealousy and envy isn’t easy to draw in that culture). Theologians have studied the sin of envy a lot, and not just in Christianity: envy is deemed a sin in basically all religions! Economists study envy too, albeit in a fairly technical sense (as a negative externality, among other notions).

Finally, philosophers study envy, and the way I do it is by being aware of all the aforementioned studies, methods and notions, and thinking about how these approaches overlap and what they tell us about the nature of envy as an emotion, and its implications for how we should live, whether we should banish it at all costs, tolerate it as an unavoidable human pulsion, or even embrace it as a functional (and potentially beneficial at times) motivation. I am particularly concerned with how envy affects ethics and politics (oh, political scientists have started working on envy too!).

David: Is envy universal? Is there a cultural component?

Sara: As I mentioned above, anthropologists haven’t found a culture that seems to be envy-free. However, it definitely takes different forms in different cultures. In poor so-called “peasant societies”, for instance, where material resources are scarce and competition for them fierce, being envied can be a lot more feared and condemned than in societies with higher social mobility, where competition may be more encouraged, and being envied may be secretly desired.

David: Does envy depend on age?

Sara: Envy does look different at different ages. According to research in social psychology young children (6-7 years) feel envy, often intensely (or perhaps they simply don’t hide it like adults do, so it appears more intense!), but in a more indiscriminate way than adults. Cognitively, they don’t have the ability to categorize people in comparison classes as finely as adults, so they may feel envy for people who are objectively quite different from them in ability, for instance. Furthermore, young children haven’t developed a sense of identity, they haven’t “specialized” so to speak, with regard to their interests and domains that matter to them, and thus, again, their envy tends to have a wider range. Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle seems to think that the old feel a more malicious and hopeless kind of envy than the young, but I am glossing a bit here. I don’t think there is empirical research on envy by age groups, as far as I know, aside for the one I mentioned on children.

David: Envy drove our ancestors to be better. Is that fair?

Sara: Assuming that it’s true, I don’t think that’s any less fair as with any other evolutionary force!

David: Anecdotally and on average, I find Italians to be close-knit, interested in each other, and generally envious. Americans, by contrast, are distant, disinterested in their neighbors, and less envious. Is envy provincial or familial in the sense that it has a narrow scope or application to those closest to you, family and friends?

Sara: It’s interesting you have this impression! I am not aware of research that compares these different nationalities with regard to intensity of envy. But anecdotally I don’t agree. I think envy takes on different forms in different places. While also Italians often hide their envy, they may be slightly less guarded than Americans. Also, Americans often tend to use “jealous” when they mean “envious”, so that’s a confounding factor.

I think it's a little tricky to answer the question in short. We do often envy people who are nearby, simply because proximity makes comparison both easy and meaningful (if two people are siblings, say, not only there will be many occasions for comparing them--and for one to envy the other--but also the comparison makes sense, because they are from similar backgrounds, genetics etc.). But we also envy people who are less close (both literally and metaphorically) because we perceive them as similar to us. So, we may even envy people we don't personally know, on social media, for instance, or even celebrities. And there is also group envy, where we envy members of other groups qua members of their groups (so in virtue of their social identity). Therefore, envy's scope can be as narrow as your immediate family and as large as gender or race!

David: Thank you Professor!

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