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Beyond envy's dark side

We are all familiar with envy’s dark side. The perception of someone who is a superior version of us acts as a painful reminder of what we could have been. That emotion has a nasty side that can lead to hostility and aggression towards the object of our envy. But not all forms of envy are malicious. The emotion signals to us what we most care about and can motivate self-improvement and help us achieve what we want, argues Sara Protasi.


There has recently been a surge of hate crime against Asians and citizens of Asian descent worldwide. Since the onset of the COVID19 pandemic, those who are, or are perceived as, Asian have been subjects to increasing discrimination, harassment, and physical violence including assault, beatings and murder.

An article in Behavioral Sciences suggests that a crucial contributor to what the authors call “Coronavirus Asiaphobia” is envy. Envy is a powerful emotion that is condemned across cultures and religions all over the world and is accused of rooting the most horrific crimes, from Cain’s fratricide against Abel to the Jewish genocide. Malicious envy motivates people to plot and scheme, to steal and sabotage, because it’s a painful feeling that may be associated with a sense of despair and hopelessness, while at the same time being entangled with very important personal goals. Despite envy’s dark and dangerous side, however, properly interpreted it’s an emotion whose power can be harnessed for self-improvement.


Sometimes we envy people, but we feel confident that we can overcome our disadvantage. Envy spurs us to do better, to try to become as good as the other person.


What’s envy got to do with it?

The Behavioral Sciences study that aimed to explain the increased incidents of violence against Asians adopts the Stereotype Content Model developed by Susan Fiske and associates, which measures the way we stereotype people along two dimensions: warmth and competence. Stereotype toward outgroups is often mixed; for instance, we may like people from a different social group, but not feel esteem for them, as is often the case for the elderly (think of the bumbly grandfather’s stereotype). With envy it goes the other way; when we dislike a person whom we perceive as more competent than us, we often feel envy. Asians and Asian Americans are often stereotyped in Western countries as highly successful (think of the “model minority” notion), but not as personable or friendly. Often, successful Asian artists or athletes are depicted as machines: technically perfect, but emotionless or uncreative. Thus, they are often the target of envy, and this, according to Daisuke and collaborators, contribute to the recent increase in “Asiaphobia”

However, this envious prejudice was observable even before the current health emergency. In my book, I argue that anti-Asian prejudice in America has been imbued with envy since its inception, as one can see in the massacres of Chinese laborers in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century.


Envy is a painful perception of a similar other’s superiority; their success—Aristotle says—feels like a reproach to us, it reminds us of what we could have been, had, or achieved.


So what is it about this emotion that leads people to engage in acts of extreme violence against those they envy?  Think about an intense episode of envy you may have felt (and yes, you probably did feel envy at some point in your life, even if you don’t like to think about it! Envy is often repressed and denied, but most people feel it). Chances are that you felt that the envied was better, more fortunate or advantaged than you in some way. Their superiority was about something you really cared about: a trait, such as beauty, humor or intelligence, or an object, such as a job, an achievement, wealth, or social status. Perhaps you scrolled on social media and felt a pang of envy toward someone you are close to: a friend or classmate.

Envy is a painful perception of a close or similar other’s superiority; their success—Aristotle says—feels like a reproach to us, it reminds us of what we could have been, had, or achieved. When the distance between us and the envied feels unfillable, that’s when the nastiness arises—we become hostile and aggressive toward the other person, and we may even make up (unconsciously) some excuses as to why they are to blame. It’s too hard to admit the other person may have worked harder or studied more than us (and thus deserve their better position), so we tell ourselves and others that they did something wrong. We smear their reputation, or invent some injustice. We try to bring them down, sometimes literally, as in some sports competitions where rivals are tripped, or worse, as in hate crimes and biblical stories.

The many faces of envy

But envy is not always this nasty. Social psychologists have found empirical confirmation for a distinction arguably already present in ancient philosophy: that there are different kinds of envy, and some are benign or at least not malicious. Sometimes we envy people, but we feel confident that we can overcome our disadvantage. In this case, envy spurs us to do better, to try to become as good as the other person, to try to get a similar job or occupy a similar position. Sports in particular is a domain where we see lots of competition and rivalry, and thus much envy in all its different manifestations.

A recent article published by The New York Times was blasted on social media. The outrage was mostly provoked by a sentence of the article that was used to advertise it on Twitter: “Asians make up around 7% of the U.S. population but have become vividly overrepresented in ice rinks and competitions”. While the article was in fact celebrating the resilience of Asian American athletes who thrive in spite of the discrimination and racism they often face, that article line was interpreted as promoting Anti-Asian sentiment, suggesting that somehow their disproportional success wasn’t deserved.

The success of Asian American skaters described in the New York Times article is bound to cause envy in other skaters, some of whom may already be prejudiced toward Asians more generally. That’s the type of envy the article’s critics fear: it’s the malicious envy that may induce a conspiracy to kneecap a competitor. But as I explain in my book, envy is a lot more complicated and interesting than that. There are at least four different kinds of envy:

a)     Spiteful Envy. The most destructive and immoral envy is felt when we feel completely incapable of improving our station, utterly desperate: that’s the spiteful envy that Iago feels toward Othello in the Shakespearean play, and which brings him to scheme and weave a web of life that ultimately ruins not only Othello and his loved ones, but also his own life, as he is thrown in prison. This envy we can call spiteful, since it spoils the good it covets. Perhaps, although this is speculative, the homeless people who killed Asian American women in a New York subway and in a Chinatown apartment were motivated, among other things, by this type of envious despair and resentment.

b)    Aggressive Envy. Malicious envy, however, can sometimes lead to rewards. Some schemes succeed, and some sabotage is effective. As much as we don’t like to think about this uncomfortable reality, cheating or taking credit for talents of a rival can sometimes be an effective way of getting ahead, especially when enviers manage to hide their envy well. I call this dangerous type of envy aggressive envy: the envy felt by someone who feels confident that they can pull the envied down to their level. While they don’t improve themselves in one sense, they still manage to improve their situation in another: the envied is not in a superior position anymore. Politics is a context where many rivalries are dealt with, not through hard work and self-improvement, but by smearing the opponent (and worse, under authoritarian regimes).

c)     Emulative Envy. Spiteful and aggressive envy are what deservingly give envy its bad reputation. But envy is concerned with a perceived inferiority with regard to an important good or goal, and that is probably why we evolved to feel it: it matters how we stack up to others, especially in a situation of scarce resources, when only some people can get a limited good. Thus, envy can be functional, because it may lead us to emulate others and improve ourselves. Call this emulative envy. Sport provides a wealth of examples of friendly rivalries, athletes who were friends, or at least friendly, but who are also constantly competing against each other and, presumably, envying the person who would win a race or a tournament. The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante masterfully illustrate how envy can intertwine with friendship and love, and how it can motivate to continuous growth and striving for achievements. Similar dynamics are probably in play among the young Olympic athletes that were at the center of the recent controversy. Karen Chen, Nathan Chen, Alisa Liu, and Vincent Zhou all share similar backgrounds and objectives, and are likely to feel productive and stimulating types of envy.

d)    Inert Envy. Unfortunately, improving one’s lot is sometimes impossible, and emulative envy cannot always arise or can become a more unproductive attitude when one lacks self-confidence or hope. That’s when inert envy arises. A typical example is “baby envy”, felt by people who would like to have children but are infertile, and are thus incapable of rejoicing with their pregnant friends and often need to avoid contact with them. This envy isn’t malicious, but it cannot be emulative, and leads to feelings of sadness, self-loathing and detachment from the envied other.


We should think of the envied as a model to emulate, not a target to destroy.


While envy reveals a dark side of human nature—our tendency to covet other people’s possessions and talents and cast an evil eye on them—it also shows a more luminous one: our tendency to improve ourselves, and strive for excellence.

But how can we resist envy’s dark temptations and channel its luminous energy? First of all, we should reject the stigma. Envy is a normal, human passion. As with all negative emotions, it’s crucial to feel it and acknowledge it, and investigate its origins, as opposed to deny it, repress it, and let it fester unchecked. All envy has signaling value. It tells us what we care about and how we compare ourselves to others with regard to important goals. When we are mindful of our envy, we might discover interesting things about ourselves! Then, we should frame our current disadvantage and inferiority as temporary, and we should develop a growth mindset, even when it seems that we are confronted with a zero-sum situation, such as many sport competitions(“I might have lost this race, but I might be able to win the next one!”). Finally, we should think of the envied as a model to emulate, not a target to destroy. After all, for envy to even arise, they cannot be too different from us. What did they do better? How can we emulate them?

Envy’s painful pangs can make us focus on what matters and on how to achieve it, if only we let them.